For workers who live on the edge, the lack of a paycheck can be very bad.
“I went to work sick,” said McDonald’s worker Terrence Wise. “This COVID disaster sometimes forces us to do things we don’t want to do. And we shouldn’t be able to make those decisions in the first place. “
Wise, a longtime activist with Stand Up KC pushing for a $ 15 minimum wage, says low-wage workers had problems even before the pandemic, but almost a year later, many employees are still struggling between their health and one Paycheck decide.
To make matters worse, the Kansas City Health Department has sought to counter an influx of complaints about workplace safety. A KCUR review of more than 2,000 complaints about coronavirus failures in Kansas City, Missouri from mid-May to mid-November paints a sobering picture of a city struggling to reopen safely.
While the vast majority of allegations related to masking and social distancing, employees used the city’s hotline to report concerns about exposure to COVID-19 at work. Dozens of these complaints have not been investigated.
Bridget Hughes was unemployed four times over the course of a year to quarantine herself after exposure to coronavirus. The weeks add up to paychecks for the mother of three already living paychecks.
“It’s devastating,” said Hughes. “… I don’t have a savings account. I don’t have any cash for a rainy day. “
When money is tight, she goes hungry. When she couldn’t fill up the gas tank in her car, she went out in the cold for an hour for her shift at a Burger King in North Kansas City.
end of March, Hughes was taken two weeks off after a family member tested positive for the coronavirus. She called the district manager and asked if she could apply for unemployment benefits while she was unemployed.
“He said, ‘Well, nobody told me to expose myself,” said Hughes.
She eventually left Burger King because she didn’t feel like the company cared about her. In a statement, a Burger King spokeswoman said that “the health and safety of team members and guests are always our top priority.”
About a quarter of US workers did not have access to paid sick leave in 2019 Pew Research Center. The picture is better for workers earning $ 10.80 an hour or less. Only a third were on sick leave. Fast food workers with no paid sick leave face a tough decision when they feel sick.
Wise was there in May. The Independence McDonald’s worker awoke with a pounding headache. After Wise did a Google search and found that a headache was a symptom of coronavirus, he called his work place.
He wanted to be careful, so he asked for a day off. Wise said he was told if he didn’t show up he would be off the schedule for the whole week. For his family, a week without pay is the difference between being able to pay rent and being evicted.
So Wise went to work.
In a statement, McDonald’s franchise owner Carson Management said employees are being given paid time off, but to qualify, they must provide evidence that they tested positive for the coronavirus or have been with someone who tested positive.
“We are working to protect and care for our employees during this difficult time and are implementing more than 50 new processes to ensure compliance with COVID-19 regulations and best practices to protect restaurant staff and customers,” said a company spokesman .
“I fear for my health and safety”
in the middle of May, Kansas City lifted its stay at home order and allowed some Kansas Citians to return to work or eat out, albeit with physical distancing and masking requirements.
As the city slowly reopened, complaints arose about companies violating the city’s coronavirus regulations. The vast majority of reports reportedly refer to masking and a lack of physical distancing a KCUR analysis of more than 2,000 complaints from mid-May to mid-November.
Employees also used the city’s hotline to report overcrowded work environments with poor attitudes towards the enforcement of masks.
A worker who looks after her 83-year-old grandma said the shopkeeper made fun of her for wearing a mask. In several cases, spouses emailed the health department to raise concerns about their partner’s workplace, which is not enforcing the mask rule. A fast food joint employee reported that his workplace had written a letter in the back room telling workers not to enforce the use of masks.
“I fear for my health and safety,” wrote one worker. “My previous reports have been ignored by my boss and the health department.” The company was contacted about the complaint in accordance with the case resolution.
About 80 complaints state that employees were not notified of coronavirus cases, that employees were not quarantined after being exposed to the virus, that employees came to work while waiting for a coronavirus test result, or that an employee positive the coronavirus responded or COVID-19 symptoms.
Thirty of these complaints were never examined by the health department. In January and February, the health department simply closed the cases with the following statement: “Due to the volume of calls, anonymous complaints were not prioritized. Case closed. “Another 11 cases do not have a solution in the city’s online system, so it is unclear whether the health department has taken action.
These unexamined claims include allegations that a bakery owner was still working after testing positive for the coronavirus, a manager who went to work instead of the despite living with five people with COVID-19 and a company that laid off employees Quarantine employees after an employee received the virus.
According to the Deputy Director of the Ministry of Health, cases are prioritized in the order in which they are received Frank Thompson. If an investigator has a large number of cases, a complaint about an active COVID-19 case may not move across the desk until the infection window has expired. If so, Thompson said the complaint could not be investigated.
“It is better to focus our resources on what may be an active outbreak than what has basically erupted in the last few days,” Thompson said.
According to a health ministry spokeswoman, illness-related calls containing reports of positive cases in a company or from people who do not follow quarantine instructions are being investigated by three employees. The team also answers questions that go straight to the health department so the 311 data doesn’t reflect the full scope of their work.
“They take their work very seriously. If there is potential for a case on a construction site to spread the virus, they would move hell and flood to act, ”Thompson said. “If they didn’t answer, there was a reason.”
Thompson said it can be difficult to tell how serious a complaint is from the first phone message or email. Sometimes callers have incorrect information about how a workplace deals with positive cases. And a complaint about four cases could be more serious than claiming 10 positive cases when dealing with 10 cases follows CDC guidelines.
Dr. Preeti Malani, University of Michigan chief health officer and an infectious disease specialist, said case prioritization shouldn’t “just come first, serve first.”
“There has to be something about the recording where you have to prioritize,” said Malani. “A group of kids playing basketball in the park without a mask is different from … a restaurant worker who says, ‘We have several cases of COVID here and no one has done anything about it and we’re being forced to work.'”
Public health officials are stretched thin – they do contact tracing, help get the vaccine up and running, and enforce health regulations. So Malani said, “There’s not much extra bandwidth,” and it’s difficult to investigate claims quickly when reports pile up.
Thompson said if the health department had “unlimited resources” it could staff a 24-hour call center with disease researchers.
“Then we could intercept every call and respond to every call within a day or two,” Thompson said. “But that’s not what we’re working with.”
“We were built by struggle”
Almost a year of working during a pandemic has been demoralizing for some workers. Bill Thompson, an employee of Independence Burger King, said he doesn’t feel safe at work.
“I don’t like cooking food for people anymore, and I really enjoyed it,” said Thompson.
There were times when the store’s thermometer did not work to check employee temperatures and the restaurant ran out of paper towels for several days and workers used toilet paper or their clothes to dry their hands, according to Thompson.
A Burger King spokeswoman said the company was “working with our franchisee to investigate and ensure our safety standards are being met.”
“While we have overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, we have committed ourselves to the highest operational and food safety standards and continue to follow these strict safety and hygienic restaurant procedures in all Burger King restaurants,” the spokeswoman said in an email.
Terrence Wise, the McDonald’s employee, never called 311 to report his concern. While he lives in Kansas City, he works in Independence so his business is not regulated by the Kansas City Health Department. But he said most workers he knows don’t know there is a way to contact the health department about concerns.
Even if Wise were to work in Kansas City, he wouldn’t think about calling the helpline because the problems he and many other fast food workers face cannot be resolved by calling.
“We were built through struggle. You know, we’ve had some of the toughest times before, ”said Wise.