Low-Wage Workers Lack COVID Protections, Fear Retaliation, California Survey Shows

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Lorena Velazquez (r) joins a rally in Oakland on April 20, 2021 to push for the passage of a state bill that aims to improve conditions for fast food workers. (Courtesy of Fight for $15 campaign)

Front-line workers in the Bay Area and other parts of California say their bosses often fail to inform them of their rights during the pandemic, and sometimes even retaliate when they ask for COVID-19 protections, according to a new survey of hundreds of workers in the restaurant, home health care, janitorial and other industries.

The report, which was published Wednesday, polled more than 630 mostly low-wage workers as coronavirus cases spiked last fall. It found a troubling lack of workplace protections for reducing the spread of COVID-19, with many employees worried they were putting their lives at risk to earn a paycheck.

About two-thirds of the survey’s respondents were concentrated in the Bay Area, and included many immigrants and people of color. Many feared contracting the virus at work and infecting others at home, as well as not being able to support their families if they got sick.

In California, employers must provide health and safety information and training, and let workers know of coronavirus-related benefits available to them, such as paid sick leave.

But more than half of the surveyed workers said their employer did not inform them what to do if they had COVID-19 symptoms or exposure. And three in five surveyed said they weren’t informed about their right to use paid sick leave for COVID-19, according to the report titled “Few Options, Many Risks.”

The results are troubling for efforts to contain the virus, since one in three respondents felt uncomfortable reporting coronavirus symptoms to their bosses, said Winnie Kao, an attorney with San Francisco’s Asian Law Caucus and one of the authors of the report.

“There might be protections out there on paper, but many folks don't know about them,” said Kao, who leads her organization’s workers rights project. “Workers really feel that they're risking their livelihood to push back in any way, and that if you speak up either about your symptoms or about lack of protections, you're potentially losing your job.”

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Kao said many workers are not speaking up about COVID-19 concerns out of fear of retaliation or doubt that their employer will address the problem. But even worse, dozens of workers who did ask for COVID-19 protections, such as masks or paid leave, reported retaliation from their employers, she said.

Lorena Velazquez, a mother of two sons, says her employer retaliated by cutting her hours after she took time off to get her COVID-19 vaccine and recover from side effects. (Fight for $15 campaign)

The survey was disseminated through nonprofit groups serving immigrants and low-wage workers, and about 40% of respondents identified as Asian, with another 40% Latinos. The vast majority of participants responded to the survey in Chinese or Spanish, suggesting they were immigrants, said Kao.

Lower-income communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by the virus. For example, since the beginning of the pandemic, 10,400 working-age Latinos in California have died from COVID-19, four times the number of white people in the same age group, according to California Department of Public Health figures. People who work outside the home face a higher risk of exposure to the virus, say public health experts.

But basic prevention measures were not available to many of the workers surveyed, with 33% of all respondents — including more than half of restaurant workers — saying they could not physically distance most of the time at work.

Employers in California are responsible for providing masks or reimbursing employees who buy their own, but 12% of respondents said they did not receive face coverings or protective equipment from their bosses.

Another troubling finding of the report: nearly one in five workers reported being paid less than the state’s minimum wage. The report authors say that’s often a signal of other violations in the workplace.

A spokeswoman for the California Department of Industrial Relations said the agency’s enforcement divisions have been working hard to educate employers about their responsibilities and to investigate workplace complaints.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) has issued more than $4.6 million in citations for COVID-related health and safety violations, said Erika Monterroza, with the Department of Industrial Relations. She added that the Labor Commissioner’s Office is investigating more than 1,200 wage and retaliation complaints connected to the coronavirus.

Unsafe working conditions, wage theft and employer retaliation are long-standing problems for the lowest paid workers in the state. But the pandemic has brought a new urgency to addressing these abuses, and fixing them will require more funding, staffing and attention at the government agencies that enforce labor laws, said Alejandra Domenzain, a co-author of the report.


“As long as there is no vigorous enforcement of labor laws, employers will continue to violate workers' rights,” said Domenzain, a program coordinator at the Labor Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley. “If an employer knows that there will be absolutely no accountability, then there's very little incentive for a lot of these low-wage employers to comply with the law.”

In California, workers are entitled to up to 80 hours of paid sick leave (depending on the size of their employer) if they have coronavirus symptoms, must care for a relative with COVID-19 or have vaccine-related side effects.

But when Lorena Velazquez took time off to get her vaccine on April 6 and then recover from an ensuing fever and arm pain, she said her employer at a McDonald’s in Oakland retaliated by cutting her hours in half.

“I used to work four days per week regularly, but then they only gave me two days,” said Velazquez, 45, in Spanish. “Now I’m worried about paying my bills and rent.”

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With the help of worker advocates, Velazquez filed a complaint about the alleged retaliation with the Labor Commissioner’s Office this week. Other workers at the same McDonald’s also filed complaints with Cal/OSHA, alleging their employer failed to notify them of potential exposure to co-workers confirmed with COVID-19, as required.

The restaurant’s manager was not available to respond to requests for comment.

On Tuesday, Velazquez, who has two young sons to support, rallied with other fast food workers outside the McDonald’s on E. 12th St. in Oakland in support of a state bill that aims to improve conditions for fast food workers.

Assembly Bill 257, by Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, would also make fast food franchisors liable for violations of employment, safety and other laws by their franchisees.

Resources:

  • Additional information on reporting a labor violation can be found here (available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Tagalog and Vietnamese).
  • Report a labor law violation here.
  • How to file a retaliation/discrimination complaint can be found here.

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