The Fast-Food Industry and COVID-19 in Los Angeles

Press Coverage

A joint publication of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, the UCLA Labor Center, the UCLA Labor Occupational Health and Safety Program (LOSH), and the UC Berkeley Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP)

Part of the Labor Center’s Covid-19 Series: Resources, Data, and Analysis for California

Executive Summary

Over the last decade, fast-food restaurants have proliferated in the United States, with the largest increase in Los Angeles County. Fast food is an integral part of the food sector in Los Angeles, comprising nearly 150,000 restaurant workers. This report investigates working conditions in fast food prior to the pandemic, profiles the industry’s demographics and cost to the public, and examines the impact of COVID-19 on the sector. Even before COVID-19, the fast-food sector was characterized by difficult working conditions and high public costs.

  1. Fast-food workers faced labor issues related to safety and injury, workplace violence, harassment, retaliation, and wage theft.
  2. The franchise model, which predominates in fast food, incentivized labor violations.
  3. Fast food’s low wages have made it difficult for workers to meet their basic needs. More than two-thirds of the families of fast-food workers in Los Angeles County were enrolled in a safety net program at a public cost of $1.2 billion a year.

Because workplaces are a common vector of COVID-19 transmission, fast-food worksites are particularly vulnerable.

  1. One-third of fast-food worksites had 20 or more employees, suggesting shared equipment, work spaces, bathrooms, and break areas. Other research found that food workers work in moderately close to close
    proximity; cooks in particular have had the highest increase in mortality of any occupation during the pandemic.
  2. Worker testimony and complaints show COVID-19 outbreaks and employer failures to communicate these outbreaks to workers.

Fast-food workers and their communities face a disproportionate risk of COVID-19 transmission and its negative impacts.

  1. Black, Latinx, and Asian populations had disproportionately higher rates of infection, hospitalizations, and deaths. Nine in ten fast-food workers in Los Angeles were workers of color, and nearly three-quarters were Latinx.
  2. Women in fast food were already vulnerable to sexual harassment, and that has been exacerbated by COVID-19. Nearly seven in ten fast-food workers were women.
  3. Though fast-food workers skewed young, over two-thirds lived in households with four or more people, and a third included household members over age 55.
  4. The majority of fast-food workers earn low wages, often at or near the minimum wage, but research indicates those wages constituted 40% of their family’s total income.
  5. Fast-food workers were twice as likely as other workers to fall below the federal poverty line, and over half of those who rent their housing were rent-burdened, spending over 30% of their household income
    on rent and utilities.
  6. Fast-food workers were one and half times more likely to be uninsured and two and a half times more likely to be enrolled in Medi-Cal than Los Angeles workers as a whole. Only a third of fast food workers
    received some type of employer-sponsored insurance.