Dos trabajadoras latinas de la industria de comida rápida en el Área de la Bahía hablan sobre las precarias condiciones de trabajo que las llevaron a sumarse al movimiento en favor de una ley regule el sector. En California, el 60,3% de los trabajadores de comida rápida son latinos y el 67,7% de la fuerza laboral de la industria son mujeres, según el Center for American Progress. California, de hecho, es el estado con el mayor número de trabajadores de comida rápida en la nación, sin embargo, no es el lugar que más paga.
This story is being co-published in partnership with The Oaklandside.
Not long after arriving to work, Alondra Hernandez saw a tall man with watery eyes enter the restaurant. It was summer of 2022, only a few months into her job as a Burger King cashier in Oakland.
The man, visibly upset, Hernandez said, headed over to the restaurant’s manager to complain about his order. He hit the COVID-19 plexiglass barrier that separated employees from customers with his fist. The acrylic partition shattered and bits of it struck the manager’s forehead. Afraid that she would be attacked next, Hernandez considered running. Instead, she rushed to her bleeding coworker, a task never discussed during her training. At the end of her shift, Hernandez returned to her apartment in East Oakland, but couldn’t sleep. When she closed her eyes, she saw the attacker.
Violence wasn’t what she expected to experience after leaving her native Mexico City in 2018. When the then 24-year-old arrived in Oakland, Hernandez applied to a job at Burger King knowing that a flexible work schedule would allow her to continue her international business studies. Little did she know about the working conditions she would witness as a fast food industry employee, Hernandez said to El Tímpano.
Months after the first violent incident at Burger King, she said, two male customers started to fight in the dining area, pointing knives at each other. Restaurant Brands International, which owns Burger King, did not respond to El Tímpano’s request to verify the violent incidents at its East Oakland location.
Hernandez said that she asked her manager to hire a security guard, but was told that employee hours and salary would be reduced to pay for the guard. “I was afraid of going back,” Hernandez said. “That’s why I decided to ask for help.”
Hernandez then remembered a Latina woman who had visited the restaurant weeks before the plexiglass incident. She had introduced herself as a member of the Fight for $15, a union-financed movement, led by low-wage workers, to demand better pay and working conditions.
The woman spoke about Assembly Bill 257, which would benefit at least half a million fast food workers in the state, including many women of color like Hernandez.
In California, 60.3% of fast food workers are Latinos and 67.7% of the industry workforce are women, according to the Center for American Progress. California, in fact, is the state with the highest number of fast food workers in the nation, however, it’s not the top-paying location.
AB 257 represented the boldest change to fast-food restaurant working conditions in the country. The bill became law in January 2023, but is currently on hold, and California voters will decide on the 2024 ballot whether to overturn it.
The bill would create a 10-member state council that could increase minimum wages and advocate for safer working conditions. It does not mention security officers, but if the proposed council agrees that hiring people trained in de-escalation tactics would improve in-store safety, it could issue that recommendation. The bill also aimed to tackle long-standing issues of sexual harassment, discrimination, wage theft, and violence in the fast food industry.
“This bill would make a big difference for a lot of folks out there, many of which are too afraid to use their voices because they have a lot to lose – their jobs,” said Assembly member Chris Holden in January 2022, on the day AB 257 passed the Assembly with 41 votes. “Employees should not have to choose between safe working conditions and their livelihood.”
Begging for a raise
More than 20 miles from the restaurant where Hernandez works, Maria, another fast food worker, shows up at an East Bay McDonald’s to begin a routine she has performed since 2005: taking drive-thru orders.
Maria, who asked for her last name to be withheld out of fear of getting fired for speaking about McDonald’s working conditions, earned $6.75 an hour when she was first hired by McDonald’s at the age of 20.
Today, the 37-year-old mother earns nearly $17 an hour. Maria said that she liked her job, but has encountered more “disrespectful customers” over the years.
“Weeks ago I took the order of a woman who threw a $20 bill at me while shouting profanity,” said Maria, who migrated to the Bay Area from Michoacán, Mexico, in 2004.
This is not the only experience that has forced Maria to contemplate a change in her employment, she added. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a coworker asked for a day off in order to get vaccinated against the virus, but he later found out he lost many hours in his typical work schedule. Ever since the health crisis started, Maria said, the culture around taking time off is met with hostility by her supervisors.
“If one calls in sick, they ask ‘Why are you calling in sick?’,” said Maria in a phone conversation with El Tímpano from her home in Oakland.
“Then they say things like ‘You don’t understand! We don’t have enough people! Come whenever you are not busy!’ One should be able to explain when there’s a problem and that should be enough, [but] there’s some resistance.”
How El Tímpano’s listening powered this story
When AB257 was passed by the State Senate, in August 2022, El Tímpano asked 2,200+ community members how they would like working conditions to improve in the fast food industry, and invited Latino and Mayan fast-food workers to share their stories. One of the activists quoted on this story, Maria, was among a dozen fast-food workers who replied. Most of the demands we heard were focused on the need for living wages, access to health care and retirement programs, and non-discrimination policies at work.
Maria told El Tímpano she had applied for jobs in the hospitality industry, but she is undocumented, and her immigration status blocks her from seeking a better wage.
Maria and her husband, a construction worker from Mexico, split the bills and support their 14-year-old high schooler and a 4-year-old boy with autism. A day without work means a day without therapy for her youngest kid, Maria said.
With an inflation surge during the COVID-19 pandemic, Maria and her husband struggled to pay their bills at the end of every month. Then, Maria thought that, after more than a decade working for McDonald’s, it was time to ask for a raise.
“I asked if I needed to take a class or anything extra so I could get a raise. But it’s always the same: ‘we can’t right now’,” said Maria, who has worked at McDonald’s since 2005.
“I try to work hard but here at McDonald’s it doesn’t matter if you are the best at what you do, you won’t get a raise. I have to beg for a raise.”
With the future of AB 257 uncertain, Maria remains hopeful that she will eventually earn $22 an hour under the new law. “If they pay me $22 an hour it will help me to not live under a tight budget anymore,” she said. In the meantime, she awaits the law’s fate while working under the same conditions that led her to activism.
“We will keep fighting until AB 257 becomes a reality,” she said. “We deserve to be heard.”
The path to activism
In the summer of 2022, after she heard about AB 257 – also known as the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery or the FAST Recovery Act – Hernandez joined efforts to push the bill forward. That June, Hernandez helped organize a strike at the Burger King where she worked on International Boulevard, a major road in Oakland.
Hernandez visited lawmakers in Sacramento with coworkers, sharing their experiences. In late August, the state Senate passed the bill and Gov. Newsom signed AB 257 into law on Labor Day, with the expectation that it would take effect January 1.
But the historic win was short-lived.
The National Restaurant Association, which had previously warned that the FAST Act would increase costs at a time of record-high inflation, formed a coalition with the International Franchise Association, which called AB 257 a discriminatory measure.
Top contributors donated more than $13 million to shut down the law. McDonald’s USA President, Joe Erlinger, one of the major contributors, said in an open letter that “the legislature passed a bill almost entirely at the behest of organized labor’s firm grip on many of the state’s lawmakers. It makes it all but impossible to run small business restaurants.”
In late December, the coalition against AB 257 won a preliminary injunction blocking the law’s implementation. Then in late January, California state officials also ruled that the coalition had gathered enough signatures to go forward with a referendum to overturn the new law. (The signature-gathering process has not been without controversy.) Voters will decide on the ballot measure in November 2024.
“We want a seat at the table, being able to speak up and have a conversation,” said Hernandez, who currently earns $16.50 an hour at Burger King. “There are people working in these restaurants for 10, 15 years and they deserve a dignified retirement. For them, we are going to continue this fight.”