Oakland McDonald's Workers Sue Management Over COVID-19 Outbreak

Four employees and the 10-month-old son of one of the workers at a McDonald's in Oakland filed a public nuisance lawsuit in California Superior Court in Alameda County. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Workers at a McDonald’s in Oakland filed a lawsuit Tuesday against restaurant management for allegedly ignoring rising COVID-19 infection rates among employees, and implementing policies that accelerated the spread of the virus.

Four workers at the McDonald's franchise on 4514 Telegraph Avenue filed the public nuisance suit in Alameda County Superior Court. According to the 20-page complaint, management failed to provide adequate personal protective equipment, forced workers to continue working while showing virus symptoms and discouraged them from using their paid sick leave.

This led to an outbreak that caused the virus to spread to at least 11 workers at the restaurant, six of their family members and at least seven workers at another McDonald’s location in Berkeley, the complaint alleges.

The Oakland location in question has been closed since May 26, when employees went on strike in response to the lack of health precautions. According to the suit, some workers were instructed by management to wear face coverings made out of unused dog diapers or coffee filters when they ran out of standard masks.

“Store managers do not enforce social distancing, and they do not give us proper gloves or sufficient masks,” lead attorney B.J. Chisholm of Altshuler Berzon said on behalf of plaintiff Yamilette Olimara Osoy Hernandez during a press call Tuesday. Her client said, “First, I had to buy masks with my own money. And at one point, the manager tried to give us dog diapers to use as masks.”

Osoy Hernandez also said her 10-month-old son contracted the virus from her, and is technically included as a plaintiff in the suit.

The lawsuit says the franchise failed to conduct appropriate deep cleaning and never asked workers about their symptoms before shifts or advised confirmed positive employees — and coworkers who came within close contact of them — to self-quarantine.

According to the lawsuit, almost all of the workers at that McDonald's location are Latino, a population disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in the Bay Area.

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“I had a headache and body aches, and wearing a mask made it feel too hard to breathe, but when I told my manager I wanted to go home, he said, ‘There is no one to cover for you, just pull the mask down,’” Osoy Hernandez said in a statement. “I believe the outbreak in the East Bay is a direct result of McDonald’s putting profits ahead of the safety of workers of color who are risking our lives to sell the company’s burgers and fries during this pandemic.”

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The McDonald’s restaurant has not responded to KQED’s request for comment.

Michael Smith, the owner of the Telegraph Ave. location, has previously denied his employees’ allegations and told the San Jose Mercury News last month that the restaurant was following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state-level safety guidelines. He said employees at his restaurant were required to wear PPE and were never asked to wear coffee filters or dog diapers as masks.

The workers and their families are requesting a temporary restraining order to ensure the location complies with COVID-19 health and safety standards and provides them with monetary damages.

“The company knowingly, recklessly and callously exacerbated the spread of COVID-19 in its restaurant and the community at large," Chisholm said in a statement. "Because this McDonald’s failed to prioritize safety, we are asking the court to step in, for the well-being of the workers and the community.”

KQED's Jasmin Purifoy contributed to this report.