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Chicago and Oakland McDonald’s Workers Win COVID-19 Protections After Allegations of Substandard Supplies and Training [Updated]

Workers in Oakland, California, filed a lawsuit after allegedly being told to make masks out of coffee filters and dog diapers

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McDonald’s sign. Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

Two recent court orders directed at McDonald’s restaurants represent partial victories for employees who seek to hold their employers legally accountable for keeping them safe from the coronavirus.

In Illinois, a Cook County judge issued a preliminary injunction ordering multiple McDonald’s locations in Chicago — including a franchisee, as well as a wholly-owned subsidiary operating corporate stores — to improve safety protocols for mask wearing, social distancing, and training, the Chicago Tribune reports. In response to workers’ and their live-in relatives’ public nuisance lawsuit, which alleged that McDonald’s failed to adequately protect them from the virus, judge Eve Reilly said that McDonald’s was not negligent and had taken measures to mitigate virus transmission, but that some locations were insufficiently enforcing mask policies and were training employees such that they believed they could stand within six feet of each other without masks, as long as they did so for less than 10 minutes.

“[T]he evidence shows that while McDonald’s has the right idea, it is not being put into practice exactly as McDonald’s envisioned, thus endangering public health,” Reilly wrote in the ruling issued on June 24. “The potential risk of harm to these Plaintiffs and the community at large is severe. It may very well be a matter of life or death to individuals who come in contact with these restaurants or employees of these restaurants on a regular, or even semi-regular basis, during the COVID-19 pandemic. And while there are many individuals who believe the pandemic is no longer a threat, science and medical research indicate otherwise. There is a long road to recovery for all of us.”

McDonald’s, when asked for comment, provided the following statement:

Throughout our 65 year history, McDonald’s and our franchisees have always operated with crew and customer safety as a top priority. McDonald’s is pleased the judge found that strong measures are already in place across these Chicagoland restaurants to create a safe experience for customers and crew, including providing sufficient supply of masks, gloves and sanitizers and sufficiently monitoring for COVID cases, as McDonald’s is doing throughout the country. These measures are part of the 50 processes we have enhanced during the pandemic to keep restaurant employees and customers safe. We have also issued a 59-page guide outlining national minimum restaurant standards, including adhering to social distancing guidelines for customers and crew, conducting wellness and temperature checks, requiring protective barriers, face masks and gloves, increasing the frequency of handwashing and providing contactless purchasing options to customers.

The prior day in California, an Alameda County judge granted a temporary court order requiring a McDonald’s franchisee in Oakland to adopt protective measures, such as employee temperature checks, social distancing policies, and providing sufficient masks and gloves, in order to reopen, Bloomberg Law reports. The restaurant in question made headlines last month for allegedly forcing sick employees to report to work, and for allegedly telling employees to make masks out of coffee filters and dog diapers (for your reference, this is a dog diaper). The workers, who started striking on May 26 and filed a lawsuit in mid-June, said that at least 23 people in the Bay Area became sick from this outbreak. The next hearing in this case falls on July 2, per Eater SF.

Michael Smith, the owner-operator of the McDonald’s in question, said that the “allegations raised in this lawsuit do not represent the high standards and reality our crew is bringing to life in our restaurants each day.” In a statement, he continued:

We’ve worked tirelessly since March to enhance nearly 50 processes in our restaurants to put crew and customer safety and well-being as our highest priorities. We are closely monitoring and complying with the guidance from the CDC and all state and local orders, including sick pay and PPE requirements. The use of PPE in our restaurants, including masks and gloves, is absolutely mandatory and has been provided to our crew members. We personally purchased 3,000 masks and 500 sets of gloves for a total of 375 employees in our organization in an effort to further mitigate any risk of transmission in any of our restaurants.

Fast-food and other service workers have faced increased risks on the job during the pandemic, often without adequate protections or hazard pay. While corporate giants like McDonald’s have been better equipped to issue standardized safety protocols and reopening guidelines — including a 59-page guide of minimum standards for franchisees, which make up the bulk of McDonald’s restaurants in the United States — enforcing such policies is a different matter, with heightened tensions between corporate management and franchisees over the cost of the increased safety demands. McDonald’s is not held responsible for how franchisees treat workers, the National Labor Relations Board ruled last December, but in the middle of a public health crisis, it would make sense for management to want to make sure franchisees fall in line with safety standards across the board.

Updated June 26, 11:53 a.m., with additional comments from a McDonald’s spokesperson.