Food and Farm Labor

Op-ed: I’m a Fast Food Worker. Here’s Why I’m Striking for Industrywide Reform

Published by
Maria Bernal

In Folsom, California, where I’ve worked at Jack in the Box as a cashier and a cook for nearly a decade, fast-food workers like me are struggling to keep up—and we know we’re not alone.

All over the country, workers like us are facing unacceptable conditions, and being treated as if we’re disposable even after the last few years made it clear that our work is essential.

For instance, when I started feeling cold and dizzy at work earlier this year, I told my manager I probably had COVID and asked to go home. But she refused. “Everyone has it, you can still work,” she said. “Just wear a mask and don’t tell anyone.”

I knew I had the option to take paid sick leave, but I also knew that when a co-worker tested positive for COVID earlier in the year, our supervisors had threatened to cut her hours. By that point, another co-worker—who stood up to our managers and had her hours cut—was down to working just one day a week.

As a single mother of three, every shift makes a difference in getting food on the table for my children. I shouldn’t be forced to make the impossible choice between supporting my family and protecting my health, especially when I have a legal right to paid sick leave. But it’s clear that as long as fast food employers think they can get away with disregarding our basic needs, workers like me are never going to get ahead.

Ever since the pandemic hit, I’ve grown more and more fed up with the way I’m treated at work. It’s not right that when my 17-year-old son had COVID last year, I had to miss eight days of work without pay. It’s not right that I have to work another job cleaning houses nearly full time just to make ends meet. So, I started talking to my co-workers about what actions we can take to stand up to our managers and win better conditions.

“Everyone has it, you can still work,” she said. “Just wear a mask and don’t tell anyone.”

Today, I’m joining fast-food workers on strike across California to let fast food companies like Jack in the Box, McDonald’s, and Burger King know that we refuse to be ignored. We’re also demanding elected officials pass a new law, AB 257, or the FAST Recovery Act, which would give us a voice on the job and force these billion-dollar corporations to take responsibility for maintaining safe and healthy workplaces.

The fast food industry is broken, and the issues workers like me face go far beyond the constant danger of COVID. According to a recent report, 85 percent of surveyed California fast food worker—over 425,000 workers across the state—have experienced wage theft, meaning they did not get paid fairly for the hours they worked. This isn’t a minor issue: some have called wage theft the nation’s “costliest crime.”

For me, wage theft has been absolutely devastating. Over the last nine years, Jack in the Box has stolen more than $150,000 from my paychecks.

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Here’s how it works in my case: On the days my manager forces me to work 14-hour shifts, she makes me clock out after 8 hours to avoid paying me overtime. During these long shifts, I desperately want to go home to my kids, but I know I have to do what my manager says or risk getting fired.

Sometimes, over the years, managers have dangled promises to me to make up for the long hours, like telling me if I worked on Christmas they would pay me double. But they never did. I didn’t just miss out on the money—I missed out on time with my family, too. It destroys me to think about all I have lost over the last decade due to Jack in the Box’s greed.

What’s been happening to me is more than just a disruption to my life—it’s a crime. Fast food and other low-wage workers across California have fought hard to get laws passed that are meant to ensure we are paid at least $15 an hour, paid time and a half for overtime, and given the ability to take paid sick leave.

In response to the wage theft I’ve faced over the last decade, I’ve filed a complaint with the California labor commissioner so I can be made whole. I also filed a complaint with Cal/OSHA to raise the alarm about being told to work while sick with COVID symptoms. But in order to be effective, the laws that exist to protect us must actually be enforced—and in California, Cal/OSHA is overworked and understaffed, and some workers wait more than 1,000 days for their wage theft claims to be heard.

That’s why California fast food workers are on strike today fighting for the FAST Recovery Act. It would give us a seat at the table with our employers and the state officials responsible for enforcing the laws meant to protect us. Together, we would set new standards for the industry around wage theft, health and safety, and more.

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Fast food executives in their corner offices should have a stake in the health and safety of every single worker they employ. As Jack in the Box workers, whether we work at a store operated by the corporation or run by a local franchisee, we all wear the same uniform. AB 257 would hold fast food corporations accountable for ensuring every store has the resources needed to comply with the laws, so that store owners like mine can’t just steal my wages to keep their profits high.

If nothing changes, more parents will be forced to wake up every morning worried about how we are going to support our kids. And we’ll continue to go on strike, march in the streets, and raise our voices until we win the protections we need to work—and live—with dignity and respect.

Maria Bernal

Maria Bernal is a Jack in the Box worker and leader in the Fight for $15 and a Union. She has been leading efforts to pass AB 257, the FAST Recovery Act, which would increase power and protections for the state's half million workers.

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Published by
Maria Bernal

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