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 like her 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.
Ruth Silver Taube, a San Jose attorney who staffs the complaint line for the Wage Theft Coalition, a group of local nonprofit and community organizations, said she’s heard countless horror stories from workers, many of whom 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 this fall.
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 a proposal by Supervisor Cindy Chavez going before the board Nov. 17 could change that.
“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,” Chavez said.
One complaint said management at a San Jose McDonald’s allowed employees to work with visible COVID-19 symptoms and failed to inform employees who had been exposed to two COVID-positive co-workers. Management reportedly did not tell employees they had a right to paid sick leave or paid quarantine leave after their exposure, the complaint 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. A restaurant manager was not available to respond to requests for comment.
The supervisors will look at developing workplace safety protocols related to COVID-19 and ways to ensure employers comply.
They’ll also consider authorizing a study of working conditions in the fast-food industry, and how the decisions of restaurant operators affect employees and the public.
“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 (408) 961-5500.