It was a little after 3 a.m. when I got home from my shift at McDonald’s and heard the kind of news no mother of a newborn ever wants to hear: my 10-month-old baby was sick, with a 104 degree fever, convulsions and diarrhea.
Earlier in the week, I had been feeling sick at work myself. I had a headache and body aches, and wearing a mask made it feel too hard to breathe. But when I told my manager I wanted to go home, he said there was no one to cover for me and told me to just pull the mask down.
Since then, both my baby and I have tested positive for COVID-19. At the McDonald’s store in Oakland where I work, at least 11 employees and six family members total have tested positive. McDonald’s has claimed recently to stand against inequity and injustice, but in reality the company has abandoned workers of color like me who are already contracting and dying from COVID-19 at disproportionate rates. I believe the outbreak in Oakland is a direct result of McDonald’s putting profits ahead of the safety of Black and brown workers who risk our lives to sell the company’s burgers and fries during this pandemic.
To add insult to injury, on Monday, even as workers at my store fight for proper PPE and paid time off to quarantine, McDonald’s rewarded its shareholders with a nearly $1 billion dividend payout for the first quarter of 2020. This follows another nearly billion dollar payout in March for the last quarter of 2019.
Nearly $2 billion is great for rich investors, who throughout the pandemic likely have been able to work from home and quarantine if needed. Indeed, McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski has said that dividends are a “paramount priority” for the company.
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I wish our CEO thought his workers were of equal importance, because here’s the truth: McDonald’s can’t truly stand against oppression when it puts that much money into shareholders’ pockets before doing everything it can to keep workers of color safe.
For just a fraction of the $1 billion McDonald’s is giving to its shareholders this week, the company could guarantee paid sick leave for workers who begin exhibiting COVID-like symptoms. It would cost McDonald’s approximately $61.2 million to provide two weeks of paid leave for its workers, even if as many as 1 in 10 U.S. McDonald’s workers got sick with COVID-19. Instead, while workers like me risk our lives every day, McDonald’s refuses to provide us all access to paid sick leave.
At my store in Oakland, where the frontline employees are Latino and Black, we didn’t have the option to take paid sick days. Our managers forced us to come into work sick, which resulted in us working in close proximity to co-workers who were sick. One of my co-workers, who was pregnant, was told to cancel a doctor’s appointment in order to come into work.
We also haven’t had the PPE we need to stay safe. As the pandemic raged, we were told to use to use doggie pee pads and coffee filters as masks. They eventually gave us disposable masks, but told us to wear them for days on end. They gave us cheap gloves that ended up shredded to pieces by the end of our shifts.
Last month, my co-workers and I decided that enough was enough. On May 26, we went on strike to demand a two-week paid quarantine period for those exposed to COVID-19, proper PPE, a deep cleaning of the store and company-paid medical costs.
So many of us walked off the job that the store shut down. The store couldn’t operate without us, which should show our managers and the corporate leadership that McDonald’s most valuable assets are its cooks and cashiers, not its shareholders.
And yesterday, after three weeks on strike, I joined three of my co-workers in filing a lawsuit against our employer for the cold-hearted policies that accelerated rather than slowed the spread of the virus in our store and community. My 10-month-old son is one of the plaintiffs.
Yet despite the outbreak we’ve seen at my store in Oakland and numerous other stores across the country, McDonald’s has already released a “playbook” instructing franchisees on how to reopen. Even as Black and brown workers continue to bear the burden of the pandemic and as the number of cases in many states has begun to increase again, the company remains so committed to turning a profit for its shareholders that it’s willing to put workers, our families and our customers at risk.
That culture of carelessness comes from the top of the company, and we see it in our stores from our franchise owners and managers. When I received the positive COVID test results for myself and my baby, I called my manager to tell her. I was crying when I told her how scared I was for my baby because he was so sick, and my manager simply said, “It’s fine.”
I started crying harder, because it’s not fine. The shareholders who got nearly $1 billion richer are doing fine, but my co-workers and I are sick and hurting. McDonald’s calls its workers of color essential and claims to stand against injustice, but I know how they really see us: as disposable as doggie pee pads.
TIME reached out to McDonald’s for comment. “These conversations claimed to have taken place by one employee do not reflect our policies in any way, and are not representative of the standards of which we hold managers and employees to,” Michael Smith, owner and operator of the McDonald’s franchise where Osoy works, said in a statement. “In accordance with the guidance of the CDC and in full compliance with all state and local orders including sick pay and PPE requirements, we are providing paid sick leave to employees impacted by the virus.” Smith also stated that the restaurant has provided the required PPE, including masks and gloves, since the start of the pandemic, and “all claims related to dog diapers being used as PPE are entirely false.” After learning that some employees had tested positive for COVID-19, he said in the statement, the location “was closed and a thorough sanitization procedure was conducted. We identified and reached out to all restaurant staff who had been in close contact with the employees who contracted the virus and advised they self-quarantine according to CDC guidelines. In response to COVID-19, our organization is offering paid sick leave and nearly $20,000 in grocery store gift cards to our employees to ensure they can continue to have access to essential needs during this difficult time.”