San Jose worker protests heat, wage theft at Burger King
Rosa Vargas (left, holding banner) and other workers protesting at a Burger King on Almaden Road that has allegedly failed to address excessive heat conditions. Photo courtesy of The Fight for $15.

A San Jose worker is blowing the whistle on Burger King for forcing employees to work in dangerously hot conditions and denying them rest breaks.

On Friday, Rosa Vargas protested in front of a Burger King on Almaden Road for allegedly failing to protect her and other employees from excessive heat and wage theft. Vargas, who worked at Burger King for seven years before suffering a stroke that paralyzed her, filed a complaint with the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) earlier this month about the heat issues.

“(I) feel like (my) head is going to explode from the heat and the stress at Burger King,” Vargas told San José Spotlight, speaking through a Spanish translator.

Vargas spent two and a half years doing physical rehabilitation to recover from her stroke, and she felt well enough to return to Burger King several weeks ago. But almost immediately she discovered she could barely function in the sweltering environment.

According to the complaint filed earlier this month, Vargas experiences headaches, dizzy spells and heart palpitations while at work. She eats ice to prevent herself from vomiting and fears the heat could induce another stroke. She claims the restaurant’s air conditioning and ventilation system don’t work properly, and that management hasn’t addressed it. Vargas says Burger King does not provide her or her coworkers training or instruction on how to prevent heat illness.

San José Spotlight was unable to reach the local franchise. A spokesperson for Burger King’s corporate office said the health and well-being of workers is the company’s top priority.

“The franchisee has confirmed that the AC unit is working properly at this restaurant and that all team members receive standard breaks during their shifts,” the spokesperson said.

Heat illness is responsible for the death of 815 U.S. workers from 1992 to 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In California, extreme heat is responsible for 20,000 injuries per year. Agricultural workers are vulnerable to heat illness, but workers laboring in overheated buildings, such as restaurants and warehouses, are also at risk.

California is one of a handful of states that has enacted a heat safety standard for all workplaces. According to Cal/OSHA, all employers in the state are required to train their employees and supervisors about preventing heat illness,  as well as to provide them with fresh water.

Vargas claims Burger King exacerbated her condition by forcing her to take a meal and rest breaks shortly after starting her shift. From 4:40 p.m. to 10 p.m. she says she was not allowed to take a rest break.

“As far as I know, no one gets a second rest break,” Vargas wrote in her complaint. “It has always been like that at this Burger King.”

Local labor leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Vargas’ employee representative, Fight for $15, which is a coalition of workers who promote improved working conditions for underpaid employees, said the extreme heat isn’t isolated to the San Jose Burger King location. The group said it’s filed more than a dozen health and safety complaints related to heat exhausted workers.

“Heat is just one of the issues facing these essential workers,” said Allynn Umel, the organization’s national director. “Wage theft, violence and COVID exposure are hazards they deal with each time they clock into a shift. While these issues may feel disconnected, they are symptoms of an industry in crisis.”

Over the course of the pandemic, fast food workers have become increasingly vocal about their demands for better workplace protection. Last year, after a Burger King worker in Santa Monica died after showing COVID-19 symptoms, employees at Burger King and McDonald’s restaurants went on strike to demand safer conditions. Last week, cooks and cashiers at a Jack in the Box location in San Diego filed complaints with Cal/OSHA after workers fainted in 100+ degree heat, according to a news release.

Vargas said she hopes the state passes AB 257, also known as the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act. The bill proposes creating a council that can establish industry-wide minimum standards on wages, working hours and conditions related to the safety and health of fast food workers. The bill was rejected in June but it is returning to the state assembly under reconsideration in January 2022.

“What’s happening at the Burger King where Rosa Vargas works is just one example of how companies like Burger King, McDonald’s and others fail to put worker’s safety over their profits, especially as essential workers continue to risk their lives day in and day out during the pandemic,” Umel said. “Workers in the Fight for $15 shouldn’t have to strike for basic protections at their stores.”

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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