McDonald’s and Other Fast-Food Restaurants: Do More to Protect Your Employees During the Coronavirus Outbreak

Adriana Gomez-Weston
5 min readMar 12, 2020

Over the past couple of weeks, COVID-19, also known as the Coronavirus has rippled through the world and is spreading like wildfire throughout the United States. It’s been in the news 24/7, so it’s hard not to see the effect that it’s had on the population in such a short amount of time. Major events have been canceled, businesses have shuttered, and many citizens have retreated to their homes. In other words, the world is coming to a standstill.

The pandemic has brought to the surface a multitude of ugly truths about the United States, one of those being the lack of sick leave and other health protections for service workers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 30 percent of private workers do not have access to paid sick leave. For service workers, the statistic increases to 42 percent.

All over the media, there are suggestions of “social distancing,” with the implementation of working from home, but that is still unfeasible for a large sum of the population, particularly fast-food workers. While there is going to be a noticeable decline in customers, employees are still being forced to work. Well, maybe they aren’t forced to, but they often don’t have the option to stay home due to financial obligations and lack of paid sick leave.

Moreso than ever, fast-food employees are extremely vulnerable to illness, especially drive-thru workers. In busier locations, employees can come into contact with hundreds of individuals in a regular eight-hour shift. A former employee, I can speak of the fact that one of my locations was an extremely busy store located next to a freeway in Southern California. Some days, I would make around 500 transactions. Often, I would have to interact with sick customers, many of whom I could hear coughing and sneezing over the speaker, then be forced to take their payment. With the speedy service of fast-food stores, ailing customers sometimes drop by for a quick bite, a cup of coffee, or to satisfy a craving without regard for the employees that have to serve them.

Through good weather and bad, fast-food work is more strenuous than it seems. In light of the pandemic, it takes on a whole other level of risk as employees are still asked to show up to work and perform as if everything is normal. In some cases that are more common than outsiders would like to believe, it is the troubling fact that employees are often penalized for missing work…even during illness.

With many locations perpetually understaffed, stores struggle to function with the bare minimum. One call-out can be fatal to an entire operation. At McDonald’s especially, speed and numbers are a priority, and often prioritized above employee well-being. As Coronavirus forces a decline in demand for fast-food, what are the stores’ plans moving forward for the next few weeks and potentially, months?

Across the United States, McDonald’s employs roughly 850,000 individuals. However, the fast-food giant has remained overwhelmingly silent as the Coronavirus crisis unfolds.

USA Today reported:

McDonald’s says sick leave policies vary but many of its corporate-owned restaurants and franchise restaurants in the U.S. offer up to five days of paid time off a year. McDonald’s USA announced Tuesday it will pay corporate-owned restaurant employees that are asked to quarantine for up to 14 days.

This is a good step, but according to Fight For 15, corporate-owned McDonald’s stores make up for only 5% of the entire workforce. This means that the remaining 95% are at the mercy of their individual franchises. So, out of 850,000 employees, only 42,500 are being offered sick leave if they are asked to quarantine. Notice the wording in the above statement? Only two weeks are offered, but what if an employee contracts the virus and has to stay out longer in order to recover, or take care of someone infected? The statement also doesn’t mention financial protection in the case of inevitable hour cuts due to the decrease in customers, or possible shutdowns due to the virus.

As mentioned in the statement above, McDonald’s employees are often allotted only five days worth of sick leave, and it is unable to be accrued. If you do not use your leave, no matter how long you’ve been an employee, you are not allowed to build it up. In the case that you use it, it will be months, maybe even a year before you see your five days restored.

Aside from the small actions for corporate stores, McDonald’s is doing little to combat the virus and protect the interests of its many employees, the majority of which are marginalized. This week, the Democrats attempted to pass an emergency paid sick leave bill. The Senate GOP blocked it. This, unfortunately, puts paid leave decisions in the hands of employers, which is a cause for worry.

What can the franchisees do?

Aside from providing paid sick leave and protection for decreased hours and closures, stores can provide more sanitary supplies such as hand sanitizers, gloves, disinfectants. It is also necessary to allow employees who wish to stay at home due to health concerns to do so. Lastly, it’s imperative that store leadership and owners devise a plan to properly educate employees on proper hygiene (which is already done but needs to be amplified) and increased sanitation procedures.

McDonald’s’ hands-off approach to its franchisees is a national health hazard. McDonald’s corporate acts as a guide, but it is unable (or unwilling) to force the hand of its franchise stores. Many major media outlets have ignored this aspect while covering the company, allowing franchise owners to fly under the radar, and therefore escape accountability.

Hopefully, McDonald’s, its franchisees, and state and federal governments step in to remedy the issue. If not, what is going to happen in the future? Service workers are the backbone of America, so why doesn’t our country treat them better?