McDonald’s employee Darnell Harris is worried about his safety and the safety of his coworkers.
An employee at a franchise on Conant Street in Detroit near Eight Mile Road, he goes to work each day in a crowded fast-food kitchen, where he alleges that many of the employees are working without the proper protections. This potentially puts them, their coworkers, and their customers at risk for spreading the novel coronavirus.
On Monday, April 27, he and a handful of coworkers walked out as part of the Fight For $15 demonstration, drawing attention to the risks fast-food workers are compelled to take during the pandemic. Similar demonstrations have taken place around the country, including at restaurants in Flint and Miami, Florida.
While many employees across the state are working from home during Michigan’s stay-at-home order, restaurants are considered essential, and business owners can choose to keep workers on staff for curbside, takeout, and drive-thru service. Restaurant employees, particularly at fast-food establishments, do not have a say in whether or not the business stays open during the pandemic; it’s left up to the discretion of the owner. The vast majority of these workers receive minimum wage and few or no health care benefits through their workplaces, nor do they receive paid sick leave. These workers have few avenues for recourse with their workplaces and little savings to fall back on if they quit out of concern for their health and safety.
Harris, who has worked at his McDonald’s location on and off for more than two years, says that the pandemic has placed added stress on him at work. Harris currently lives with his sister and 1-year-old niece and is helping pay the rent while trying to keep with payments on past medical bills and tuition. Many people in Michigan are clamoring to get back to work — sometimes defying executive orders to do so. But Harris feels the weight of the health risks when he goes to work at the McDonald’s grill, and wishes there were a way he could feel more secure. “I feel like I have no choice but to work there during this time,” he says. Just before the onset of the health crisis in Michigan, Harris started working part-time as a delivery driver for Doordash to supplement his income. He now believes he could potentially make more money from that gig-economy job then through his regular shifts at the restaurant.
Throughout the pandemic, Harris observes that business has been relatively steady at his McDonald’s, though the drive-thru has gotten busier. Harris says that the pandemic has been particularly hard for him. “I feel like I’m not safe,” he says, “like I’m putting my family in danger.” His sister, who is able to work from home, is weary of him interacting with his niece for fear he might carry the virus back to the family. “I always hug my niece and show affection to my niece,” he says. “Since the whole coronavirus has been going around, I haven’t been able to do that.”
Harris does his best to stay safe at work. He has his own car and doesn’t need to rely on public transportation and reuses a surgical mask that he purchased himself. “I’ve always had a mask. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say anything [to management] about what we need for the store,” he says, of the need for personal protective equipment. Harris says he has not yet been asked by his employer to get screened for COVID-19 at the nearby State Fairgrounds drive-thru testing site, as the mayor has advised. “Nobody has said anything to me about getting tested for coronavirus,” he says.
The restaurant only lets four customers at a time into the building, but he says the kitchen is crowded and it’s difficult to maintain social distance. “In the back, there’s a lot of people, at least eight or nine people, in the kitchen, so we’re all interacting,” he says. “I feel like if I was to be sick, I would be left with a medical bill.”
In a statement to Eater, McDonald’s franchisee Sonja Shields addressed concerns over measures being taken in response to the novel coronavirus at the Conant Street location. “The health and safety of my employees and customers is our number one priority,” she writes. “Since the coronavirus pandemic began impacting the U.S., we’ve continuously evolved our safety programs and processes, in accordance with guidance from the CDC, to help customers and restaurant employees feel safe.” Shields says she’s providing non-medical-grade masks and gloves to all employees and that the business conducts wellness and temperature checks at the beginning of each shift. The location has also added guides for social distancing inside the restaurant and installed protective panels in addition to “enhanced hygiene practices.”
Speaking with Eater, Harris had described his McDonald’s location as having a mixed response to the virus. He says the restaurant keeps a thermometer on hand to take temperatures of staff members and provides gloves, but thus far hasn’t provided masks that would help prevent airborne spread off the virus by carriers.
Under state executive order number 2020-60, issued on April 24, all “food-selling establishments” such as restaurants and grocery stores are required to “deploy strategies to reduce COVID-19 exposure for their customers and employees,” including requiring face masks for checkout workers, and providing hand sanitizer and adequate time for handwashing. If an employee is exposed to the virus, employers are required to monitor that individual’s symptoms, make sure the employee is maintaining social distancing, and ensure that they’re wearing a mask.
Eater visited the McDonald’s location this week to verify Shield’s and Harris’s divergent descriptions of the conditions at the restaurant. Printed signs were on display at the entrance stating “No face mask, no service” and reminding customers to use social-distancing markers and limit the number of people in the restaurant waiting area to four. Inside, the restaurant had added yellow markers to help customers keep proper social distance while ordering; a Plexiglass guard covered the area between customers and registers.
While on the premises, Eater observed five employees within view of the counter. Only one appeared to be wearing a homemade cloth face mask in the proper way — secured over the nose and mouth. Two staffers were observed with masks over their mouth only or resting on their chin. An employee at the register stated that they had been provided with masks for a little over a week by their employer but that the masks were uncomfortable and pulled on their ears, so many staff members weren’t wearing them. Employees seemed to indicate that as long as they were making sure customers coming inside the restaurant were wearing masks, the environment would remain safe.
Shortly after that visit, Eater paid visits to two additional McDonald’s locations in Detroit — a location off I-75 near Eastern Market and another in southwest Detroit on West Vernor Highway. Both restaurants had completely shut down their in-store ordering at the time of Eater’s visit, limiting customers to drive-thru and curbside pickup. Employees inside appeared to be wearing the proper face coverings. An employee at the drive-thru window in southwest Detroit was wearing a mask, while a curbside runner was not wearing a mask outdoors. (State regulations currently only apply to people wearing masks in enclosed public spaces.)
Harris, along with other workers across Michigan, participated in a Zoom call with state lawmakers Rep. Jim Haadsma (Calhoun County), Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (Western Wayne County) and Rep. Kyra Harris Bolden (Oakland County) on Wednesday, April 29, to discuss the need for more protections for essential workers. The discussion covered topics like hazard pay and sick leave — policy changes that could help essential workers not only during the health crisis, but also going forward, as conditions start to normalize.
“I think we all want this crisis to be over with, but the real solution is making sure we don’t return to the same ‘business as usual,’” Harris says. Representatives seemed sympathetic to the concerns of workers, who were brought together by a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
“We’re scared. We have families to come home to. We’ve had enough,” Harris says.
Eater is tracking the impact of the novel coronavirus on the local food industry. Have a story to share? Reach out at email@example.com.