For workers living on the edge, missing a paycheck can be crushing.
“I’ve gone to work sick,” McDonald’s worker Terrence Wise said. “This COVID disaster forces us sometimes to do things we don’t want to do. And we shouldn’t be in a position to have to make those decisions in the first place.”
Wise, a longtime activist in the Stand Up KC organization pushing for a $15 minimum wage, says low-wage workers were already struggling before the pandemic hit, but almost a year later many employees are still having to choose between their health and a paycheck.
To make matters worse, the Kansas City health department has struggled to address an influx of complaints about workplace safety. A KCUR analysis of more than 2,000 complaints about businesses in Kansas City, Missouri, not following city coronavirus regulations from mid-May to mid-November paints a sobering picture of a city struggling to safely reopen.
While the vast majority of allegations relate to masking and social distancing, employees also used the city’s hotline to report concerns about being exposed to COVID-19 at work. Dozens of those complaints were not investigated.
Over the course of a year, Bridget Hughes has been off work four times to quarantine after coronavirus exposure. The weeks add up for the mom of three already living paycheck to paycheck.
“It’s devastating,” Hughes said. “… I don’t have a savings account. I don’t have a stash of money put away for a rainy day.”
When money gets tight, she goes hungry. When she couldn’t fill up her car’s gas tank, she walked an hour in the cold for her shift at a North Kansas City Burger King.
In late March, Hughes had to take two weeks off of work after a family member tested positive for the coronavirus. She called the district manager and asked if she would be able to apply for unemployment benefits while out of work.
“He was like, ‘well, no one told me to get exposed,’” Hughes said.
She eventually left Burger King because she didn’t feel like the company cared about her. In a statement, a spokeswoman for Burger King said the “health and safety of team members and guests is always our top priority.”
About a quarter of U.S. workers in 2019 didn’t have access to paid sick leave, according to the Pew Research Center. For workers earning $10.80 an hour or less, the picture is starker. Only a third had paid sick leave. Fast-food workers without paid sick leave face a difficult decision if they start feeling ill.
That’s where Wise found himself in May. The Independence McDonald’s worker woke up with a throbbing headache. After doing a Google search and realizing that a headache is a symptom of coronavirus, Wise called his workplace.
He wanted to be cautious, so he asked to have the day off. Wise said he was told if he didn’t show up then he’d be taken off the schedule for the entire week. For his family, going a week without pay is the difference between being able to pay rent and getting evicted.
So, Wise went to work.
In a statement, the McDonald’s franchise owner, Carson Management, said employees are given paid time off, but to qualify they have to show they tested positive for the coronavirus or were with someone who tested positive.
“We work to protect and provide for our people during this difficult time, implementing more than 50 new processes to ensure compliance with COVID-19 regulations and best practices to protect restaurant crew and customers,” a spokesman for the company said.
‘I fear for my health and safety’
In mid-May, Kansas City lifted its stay-at-home order, allowing some Kansas Citians to get back to work or go out to eat, but with physical distancing and masking requirements in place.
As the city slowly reopened, complaints about businesses violating the city’s coronavirus regulations rolled in. The vast majority of the reports relate to masking and the lack of physical distancing, according to a KCUR analysis of more than 2,000 complaints from mid-May to mid-November.
But employees also used the city’s hotline to report crowded work environments with a lackadaisical attitude toward mask enforcement.
A worker taking care of their 83-year-old grandma said the store’s owner made fun of them for wearing a mask. In multiple cases, spouses emailed the health department to raise concerns about their partner’s workplace not enforcing the mask rule. A fast-food joint employee reported that their workplace posted a letter in the back room telling workers not to enforce the use of masks.
“I fear for my health and safety,” one worker wrote. “My previous reports have been ignored by my boss and the health department.” The business was contacted about the complaint, according to the case resolution.
About 80 complaints allege staff members weren’t told about coronavirus cases, workers didn’t quarantine after being exposed to the virus, staff showed up to work while awaiting a coronavirus test result or an employee worked while positive for the coronavirus or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
Thirty of those complaints were never investigated by the health department. In January and February, the health department simply closed the cases, with the following explanation: “Due to volume of calls, anonymous complaints were not prioritized. Case closed.” An additional 11 cases don’t list a resolution on the city’s online system so it’s unclear if the health department took action.
Those uninvestigated claims include an allegation that a bakery owner was still working after testing positive for the coronavirus, a manager clocking into work despite living with five people who had COVID-19 and a business firing employees instead of letting workers quarantine after an employee got the virus.
The cases are prioritized in the order they’re received, according to health department deputy director Frank Thompson. If an investigator has a large caseload, a complaint about an active COVID-19 case might not cross their desk until after the infection window has passed. In that case, the complaint might not be investigated, according to Thompson.
“It’s better to target our resources to something that may be an active outbreak versus something that is an outbreak that’s basically in its last couple of days,” Thompson said.
Calls that are disease-based, which include reports of positive cases at a business or someone not following quarantine guidance, are investigated by a staff of three people, according to a health department spokeswoman. The team also answers questions that come directly to the health department so the 311 data doesn’t show the full scope of their work.
“They take their jobs very seriously. If there is a potential for a case that is out there at a worksite, spreading the virus, they would move hell and high water to respond to that,” Thompson said. “If they did not respond, there was a reason for it.”
Thompson said it can be difficult to tell how serious a complaint is based on the initial phone message or email. Sometimes callers have incorrect information about how a workplace is handling positive cases. And a complaint about four cases might be more serious than an allegation of 10 positive cases if the business with 10 cases is following CDC guidance.
Dr. Preeti Malani, the University of Michigan’s chief health officer and an infectious disease specialist, said prioritizing cases shouldn’t “only be first come, first serve.”
“There has to be something at the intake where you have to prioritize,” Malani said. “A group of kids playing basketball without masks in the park is different than … a restaurant worker who says, ‘we have multiple cases of COVID here and no one was doing anything about it and we’re being forced to work.’”
Public health departments are stretched thin — doing contact tracing, helping roll out the vaccine and enforcing health regulations. So Malani said “there’s not a lot of extra bandwidth,” and it’s challenging to quickly investigate claims as reports pile up.
Thompson said if the health department had “unlimited funding” it could staff a 24-hour call center with disease investigators.
“Then yes, we could catch every call and respond to every call within a day or two,” Thompson said. “But that is not the circumstance we are working with.”
‘We were built through the struggle’
Almost a year of working during a pandemic has been demoralizing for some workers. Independence Burger King worker Bill Thompson said he doesn’t feel safe at his job.
“I no longer like cooking food for people and I used to really enjoy it,” Thompson said.
There were times when the store’s thermometer to check employee temperatures didn’t work and for several days the restaurant ran out of paper towels and workers used toilet paper or their clothes to dry hands, according to Thompson.
A spokeswoman for Burger King said the company is “working with our franchisee to investigate and ensure our standards of safety are being upheld.”
“As we’ve navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, we committed to the highest operational and food safety standards and continue to follow these rigorous safety and hygiene restaurant procedures at all Burger King restaurants,” the spokeswoman said in an email.
Terrence Wise, the McDonald’s employee, has never called 311 to report his concerns. While he lives in Kansas City, he works in Independence so his business isn’t regulated by the Kansas City health department. But he said most workers he knows don’t realize there’s a way to contact the health department about concerns.
Even if Wise worked in Kansas City, he said he wouldn’t think to call the hotline because the issues he, and many other fast-food workers face, can’t be fixed by a phone call.
“We were built through the struggle. You know, we’ve already had some of the hardest times even before,” Wise said.