UPDATE: Santa Clara County to look into COVID-19 workplace safety
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors will consider COVID-19 safety protocols at fast-food restaurants. File photo.

Maria Ruiz said she lost her job at a San Jose McDonald’s this summer after reporting her employer for COVID-19 violations and refusing to work in unsafe conditions.

Many others also have lost their jobs, faced harassment or suffered in silence as their employers continue to ignore health and safety guidelines every day, according to complaints filed with Santa Clara County Public Health Department, Cal/OSHA and the Labor Workforce and Development Agency.

On Nov. 17, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a plan to study working conditions in the fast-food industry, and how the decisions of restaurant operators affect employees and the public during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“No matter where you work in the county, you need to have the ability to look out for your health and the health and welfare of your co-workers and your clients,” Supervisor Cindy Chavez said.

Santa Clara County doesn’t have an ordinance or public health order explicitly prohibiting retaliation against workers who report COVID-related health and safety violations, but that could change depending on the outcome of the study.

“I was fired because of denouncing different working conditions that weren’t acceptable and denouncing insufficient social distance measures,” Ruiz told supervisors through a translator. “We need companies to be accountable and we need workers to be heard.”

Ruth Silver Taube, a San Jose attorney who staffs the complaint line for the Santa Clara County Office of Labor Standards Enforcement Advice Line, said she’s heard countless horror stories from people who often call her in tears because they are afraid for their jobs and for their health.

The Wage Theft Coalition, Fight for $15 and other organizations supporting workers have reported a disproportionate amount of safety complaints coming from employees at Santa Clara County fast-food chains.

At least seven complaints have been lodged against Santa Clara County fast-food chains. A letter from Fight for $15 and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) sent to the Board of Supervisors identifies more than 100 complaints statewide with the potential for countless more.

The complaints include a lack of warm water to wash hands, failure to enforce social distancing, failure to disinfect regularly-touched surfaces, employing workers with visible COVID-19 symptoms, and more.

The McDonald’s that allegedly fired Ruiz, at 2040 North First Street in San Jose, closed earlier this fall.

In response to Ruiz’s complaint, McDonald’s corporate spokesperson Lindsay Rainey said, “The employee’s claims are untrue and cannot be substantiated. The employee was terminated after a thorough review found that she falsely reported a safety violation, created and provided false evidence, and lied during the investigation.”

Rainey said McDonald’s has been working with the Mayo Clinic to review its safety and health policies for employees and customers to ensure a safe and considerate response to the pandemic.

“We are deeply disappointed that these claims mischaracterize what is happening in the 14,000 US McDonald’s restaurants, where together with our franchisees, we’ve implemented the swiftest operational transformation in our company’s history with customer and employee (sic) driving our decision making,” Rainey said. “McDonald’s continues to enhance processes in alignment with the latest science to ensure a safe working environment.”

Ruiz has a wrongful termination lawsuit pending against McDonald’s.

Another complaint filed with the county said management at the McDonald’s at 1033 E. Capitol Expressway in San Jose allowed employees to work with visible COVID-19 symptoms and forced other employees to work with the sick coworkers.

Some employees said they were forced to work until they were too sick to continue. Other employees were allegedly told later to quarantine after their exposure, but employees claim they were not paid for the entirety of their quarantine time.

“I am disappointed by these allegations, which do not reflect our extensive efforts to provide for crew, manager and customer safety,” said Daniel Borba, owner and operator of the McDonald’s.

“We have been working in close partnership with the Santa Clara Health Department and public health experts to continuously enhance safety protocols as we learn more, and the Health Department closed its investigation into our restaurant this weekend (Nov. 1) after confirming it had been more than 28 days since any employee had reported symptoms or a positive case,” Borba said.

In another complaint, management at a Jack in the Box in Milpitas fired an employee who followed the quarantine order to stay home after testing positive for COVID-19. The employee did not receive quarantine or sick pay and co-workers were not notified they had been exposed, according to the complaint.

Jack in the Box did not respond to a request for comment.

“It is really important that the workers are protected because they are essential workers who are risking their lives,” Silver Taube said. “It is also important to all of us because when businesses are not complying, customers are at risk. Right now COVID-19 is exploding, and we all have to do our part.”

Employees with concerns about COVID-19 can report them via this link or call 1-866-870-7725.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] and follow her @MadelynGReese.

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