Graphic via Shutterstock / Cardinal & Pine North Carolina Workers Strike
Graphic via Shutterstock / Cardinal & Pine

“Frontline workers like us are getting hit the hardest right now,” said one McDonald’s cook in Raleigh. “McDonald’s is calling itself an ‘essential business’ but isn’t providing us with the essential protections we need to be safe at work.” 

Dozens of fast-food, retail, and gas station workers are striking today in North Carolina, protesting unsafe working conditions, lost hours, and lack of paid sick leave during the coronavirus pandemic.

Hours after local “stay-at-home” orders went into effect in Durham, workers at McDonald’s, Waffle House, and other chains went on strike, arguing that since they are considered “essential workers” that must report to work, they should be provided appropriate protections. They were joined by workers in Raleigh, where a “stay-at-home” order is set to go into effect at 5 p.m. Friday.

Workers say their employers failed to provide basic protections and did not seem to care about their safety.

“My job said that we can’t wear masks because it would be intimidating to customers. We also had to make our own hand sanitizer, we used clorox [bleach] and water; that’s what they consider sanitizing,” said Bertha Bradley, an employee at the regional fast-food chain Dog House. “We want to have the right sanitizer in order to be safe. We want them to provide us with gloves. I had a customer that gave me gloves and a mask, but I couldn’t wear the mask.”

Bradley, a 60-year-old resident of Durham, is a full-time employee at Doghouse, but has seen her hours cut to about 20 hours per week in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and doesn’t have the option to take paid time off.

“We don’t get paid time off,” she said. “We have no choice, we can’t be out of work.”

Despite being classified as essential workers, Bradley said they were not being treated as such. 

“All they’re concerned about is their product going through that window,” she said. “Why should we do all this stuff for them, when they’re not doing anything for us? We’re the ‘essential workers,’ as they call us. So protect us. If you want your business to run, protect us.”

Mike Martin, manager of Kiosk Foods, LLC, Doghouse’s parent company, refuted Bradley’s claims.

“We have requested all employees who interact with customers to wear gloves. Normally only crew members who prepare food are required to wear gloves but we undertook this added measure of precaution to ensure worker safety,” Martin told Cardinal & Pine. “We do not have a policy against face masks … We would encourage any employee who feels like a face mask is required to wear one.”

Doghouse provides gloves to “all employees,” Martin said, but does not provide masks. “I am not aware of any other takeout restaurant that supplies these to their staff,” he added. He also acknowledged that Doghouse does not provide workers with hand sanitizer, but said he was unaware of employees using bleach to make their own hand sanitizer.

“Your email about using bleach was the first we have heard of this and we will certainly address it with all crew members now that you have brought this to our attention. It is not recommended for hand sanitizing and should not be used for that purpose,” Martin said, adding that every store had two hand-washing stations and that employees should utilize those instead of using bleach water to sanitize their hands.

Bradley is not the only worker with complaints about her employer. More than 80 people gathered on a Zoom call on Friday, where they shared their experiences as frontline workers during a public health crisis. 

“Frontline workers like us are getting hit the hardest right now,” said Rita Blalock, a McDonald’s cook in Raleigh. “McDonald’s is calling itself an ‘essential business’ but isn’t providing us with the essential protections we need to be safe at work.” 

Blalock said McDonald’s hasn’t given her anything to protect herself except gloves. 

“It’s unsafe. I’ve been working just with plastic gloves. I work the drive thru, we have customers coming up to the window, they’re breathing on me, I’m breathing on them. It’s not safe,” she said during the Zoom call.

The company has also cut her hours, which she understands since business is slow. But she says the company should offer paid leave.

“If they cut my hours, they should at least give me some sick days. It’s unsafe,” she said.

Bradley, Blalock, and other fast food workers were also joined by employees of Family Dollar, Food Lion, Walmart, and Shell gas station. All strikers are members of NC Raise Up, a chapter of the national Fight for $15 and a Union movement. Striking workers received the support of a broad coalition of community leaders, including Jillian Johnson, Durham mayor pro tem, and Isaac Villegas, pastor and president of the North Carolina Council of Churches.

“Y’all’s jobs are the most important jobs in our community. Of course you deserve basic safety protections, of course you deserve paid sick leave,” Johnson said during the Zoom call. “We need to make demands of companies … and we also need to make demands of our governments. This is the best argument for paid sick days. This is the best argument for universal healthcare … Every single one of you is an essential worker and you deserve to be treated as such.”

Low wages, unsafe working conditions, and lack of paid sick leave were all issues prior to the coronavirus outbreak, but the pandemic has really highlighted employers’ failures to treat workers with dignity, according to some experts.

“For workers at corporations like McDonald’s, the low wages, unpaid sick leave, and lack of healthcare coverage were inhumane before the CoVID-19 pandemic,” said Jess Friedman, a Chapel Hill physician. “In this pandemic, disregard for worker safety compounds baseline inequities to put individual workers, their families, and the public they serve at unacceptably high risk. This strike is necessary to protect workers and public health.”

The North Carolina strikers are just the latest example of workers engaging in labor action during the coronavirus pandemic. Across the United States, “essential workers” are striking over many of the same issues. Whether it’s garbage collectors in Pittsburgh, Amazon warehouse workers in Chicago, or Instacart gig workers across the country, workers are organizing in larger numbers as the pandemic worsens. 

The uptick in activism and organizing doesn’t surprise labor experts.

“It’s not about better working conditions on some kind of abstract level, it’s really about life and death and survival,” Veena Dubal, Associate Professor of Employment Law focusing on work law at the University of California, Hastings, told Cardinal & Pine. “I think it makes sense given what is at stake that we’re seeing such an uptick in striking and protesting and anger and agitation.”

Whether Bradley and her peers win concessions remains to be seen, but it’s clear they’re fed up and outraged with their employers’ inaction.

“They don’t care,” she said. “I don’t understand why they’re not showing any sympathy.”