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Taco Bell, KFC Workers in San José Walk Out Over Hot, Dangerous Conditions

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Fast food workers from KFC and Taco Bell march behind a huge red and yellow banner that reads, "San Joe fast food workers." Some demonstrators hold flags and signs.
Taco Bell and KFC workers in San José walked off the job on Wednesday, June 12, 2024, protesting unsafe working conditions and cuts to their hours. (Courtesy the California Fast Food Workers Union)

Employees at a Taco Bell and KFC location in San José walked off the job Wednesday afternoon, protesting high kitchen temperatures and other unsafe working conditions ahead of a vote by state regulators on indoor heat protections for workers.

Staff members at the joint franchise allege that they have been forced to work in unsafe conditions, including 90-degree kitchen temperatures and a potential gas leak, and faced shift reductions since California increased fast-food workers’ minimum wage to $20 an hour in April.

Employees Marcelo Tagle and Daisy Arrano alleged in a complaint filed Tuesday with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, that the kitchen temperature reached 90 degrees this month. This is the third complaint the workers have lodged with Cal/OSHA over excessive heat since last August.


“The kitchen can get so hot that [Tagle] feels suffocated like he cannot get enough air, and [Arrano] feels like it is often hotter inside than it is outside,” the complaint reads.

It alleges that management told employees the air conditioner in KFC and Taco Bell’s shared kitchen was repaired following the initial complaints, but temperatures remain high.

In a statement, Taco Bell told KQED that “the safety and well-being of team members is our top priority at Taco Bell. The franchise owner and operator of this location is currently looking into and working to address any team member concerns.”

Two workers at a Taco Bell-KFC stand outside the location protesting unsafe working conditions. They hold signs that read, "Huelga, Huelga, Huela" and "On Strike."
Marcelo Tagle (left) and Daisy Arrano (right) stand outside of a Taco Bell-KFC location in San José on June 12. The workers allege that unsafe heat conditions have made them feel suffocated and resulted in visibly red and clammy skin. (Courtesy the California Fast Food Workers Union)

The franchise owners, Harman Management Corp. and KFC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The walkout comes as a California safety board is set to vote next week on new indoor heat illness prevention rules. The standards from the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board would prohibit workplaces from having indoor temperatures exceeding 87 degrees Fahrenheit.

These standards have been expected since 2019, when state workplace safety regulators were supposed to propose a set of rules to protect tens of thousands of workers at risk of heat hazards at warehouses, restaurants, packing houses and other indoor workplaces. They missed that deadline, and the debate surrounding the rules has continued for five years since.

In March, the board was expected to finally vote on protections, but it delayed a decision due to last-minute cost estimates. If the standards pass on June 20, workplaces will be required to maintain lower indoor temperatures and provide cooling zones when temperatures are over 82 degrees.

“I ask those officials to vote in support of those rules because they’re very important for us workers,” Tagle told KQED. “A lot of people think working in a restaurant is easy, but it’s a job that’s difficult, and you often have to deal with uncomfortable temperatures because owners don’t put enough attention into the problems in their companies.”

Heat illness, when the body struggles to cope with high temperatures, can lead to cramps, exhaustion, dizziness, stroke and even death. In California, at least seven workers died from causes related to indoor heat exposure between 2010 and 2017.

The Taco Bell employees are requesting repairs to the store’s air conditioner, cooling and water breaks, and training to prevent, identify, and respond to heat-related illnesses. Their complaint also calls on Cal/OSHA to investigate a potential gas leak the employees have detected, citing a smell of gas near the kitchen’s water heater.

They are also calling for their work hours to be restored. A second complaint against the same location was filed Monday with San José’s Office of Equality Assurance, accusing KFC of reducing employees’ hours while hiring four new workers. Tagle and Luis Mendez allege that their hours have been cut since shortly after California raised the statewide minimum wage for fast-food workers to $20 an hour in April.

“We expected our incomes would go up,” the complaint states. “Management cut our schedules and illegally gave our hours to newly-hired workers.”

Tagle said that his schedule has been gradually reduced from 25 hours a week to just one day a week since April, while four new employees have recently been hired at the location. He and Mendez believe that it violates San José’s “Opportunity to Work” ordinance for current employees to not be offered increased hours before hiring new staff or to have their hours reduced while the restaurant takes on new employees.

Wednesday’s walkout comes just two days after employees at a McDonald’s in San José walked off the job, also protesting hours reductions.

KQED’s Juan Carlos Lara contributed to this report and Farida Jhabvala Romero contributed to this report

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