Commentary: Study Finds Fast Food Workers Vulnerable to COVID As Great Resignation Trend Continues

Photo by Thabang on Unsplash

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

About 4.5 million people voluntarily left their jobs in November, a new high, up from 4.2 million in October, according to the NY Times, and this marked the most in the two decades that the government has kept track.

“The surge in quitting in recent months — along with the continuing difficulty reported by employers in filling openings — underscores the strange, contradictory moment facing the U.S. economy after two years of pandemic-induced disruptions,” the Times writes, though their own data show that the number of people quitting their jobs have risen steadily since about 2009.

“Much of the discussion about the increase in quitting, sometimes referred to as the Great Resignation, has focused on white-collar workers re-evaluating their priorities in the pandemic,” the Times continues. “But job turnover has been concentrated in hospitality and other low-wage sectors, where intense competition for employees has given workers the leverage to seek better pay.”

Something else caught my eye, however.  A study from UCLA which finds “working conditions in the Los Angeles fast-food industry lead to an increased risk of COVID-19 transmission in communities of color, and $1.2 billion in public costs as a result of low wages that have plagued the industry for years.”

That’s no small industry.  That part of the food sector in Los Angeles accounts for nearly 150,000 restaurant workers, most of whom are women and people of color.

Like many things in society, COVID did not cause problems in the fast-food industry, it exacerbated them.

The reports noted, “Even before COVID-19, the fast-food sector was characterized by difficult working conditions and high public costs.”

“Fast-food workers faced labor issues related to safety and injury, workplace violence, harassment, retaliation, and wage theft,” the report noted.  “The franchise model, which predominates in fast food, incentivized labor violations. Fast food’s low wages have made it difficult for workers to meet their basic needs. More than two-thirds of the families of fast-food workers in Los Angeles County were enrolled in a safety net program at a public cost of $1.2 billion a year.”

But such workplaces are a common vector for COVID transmission and the fast-food worksites “are particularly vulnerable.

“One-third of fast-food worksites had 20 or more employees, suggesting shared equipment, work spaces, bathrooms, and break areas. Other research found that food workers work in moderately close to close proximity; cooks in particular have had the highest increase in mortality of any occupation during the pandemic,” the report found.

It added, “Worker testimony and complaints show COVID-19 outbreaks and employer failures to communicate these outbreaks to workers.”

The overall findings are disconcerting.

“Black, Latinx, and Asian populations had disproportionately higher rates of infection, hospitalizations, and deaths,” the report found. “Nine in ten fast-food workers in Los Angeles were workers of color, and nearly three-quarters were Latinx.”

Women are already vulnerable to sexual harassment, and this has been exacerbated by COVID.  Nearly seven in ten fast food workers are women.

Fast food skews young, but two-thirds live in households with four or more people and a third included household members over 55 of years of age.  The majority earn low wages, at or near minimum wage, but those wages constitute about 40 percent of their family’s total income.

“Fast-food workers were twice as likely as other workers to fall below the federal poverty line, and over half of those who rent their housing were rent-burdened, spending over 30% of their household income on rent and utilities,” the report noted.  “Fast-food workers were one and half times more likely to be uninsured and two and a half times more likely to be enrolled in Medi-Cal than Los Angeles workers as a whole. Only a third of fast food workers received some type of employer-sponsored insurance.”

While this survey and report was conducted in Los Angeles, there is no reason to believe that what is true in Los Angeles would not be true elsewhere.

While it is true that this has been a continuing trend for over a decade, it is also true that COVID has exacerbated the conditions.  It seems that the poor work conditions and low pay, perhaps with enhancement risk of infection for fast-food workers, has made many reconsider whether such jobs are worth their while.

But some of this might not be bad news.

“This Great Resignation story is really more about lower-wage workers finding new opportunities in a reopening labor market and seizing them,” said Nick Bunker, director of economic research at the Indeed Hiring Lab.

The Times reported, “For some workers, the rush to reopen the economy has created a rare opportunity to demand better pay and working conditions. But for those who can’t change jobs as easily, or who are in sectors where demand isn’t as strong, pay gains have been more modest, and have been overwhelmed by faster inflation. Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta shows that job-switchers are getting significantly faster pay increases than people who stay in their jobs.”

However, overall, Americans are pessimistic.

“Despite the demand for workers and the pay increases landed by some, Americans are pessimistic about the economy. Only 21 percent of adults said their finances were better off than a year ago, according to a survey released Tuesday,” the Times reporting.  “Overall consumer confidence is at the lowest level in the nearly five years Momentive has been conducting its survey.”

This is definitely a trend worth watching.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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20 Comments

  1. Keith Olson

    Fast food’s low wages have made it difficult for workers to meet their basic needs. More than two-thirds of the families of fast-food workers in Los Angeles County were enrolled in a safety net program at a public cost of $1.2 billion a year.”

    I thought as of Jan. 1 everyone in California is now being paid a living wage?

    [edited]

  2. Chris Griffith

    the next time you are pumping your own gas in the rain dont just think about the teenager who could have been pumping it for you, think about the auto mechanic he could have become – had the minimum wage not denied him a job. Many auto mechanics used to learn their trade while working as pump jockeys. Between fill-ups, checking tire pressure, and washing windows, they would spend a lot of time helping and learning from mechanics.

    the only way to increase wages is to increase worker productivity If wages could be raised simply by government mandate we could set the minimum wage at $100 per hour and solve all problems. It should be clear that, at that level, most of the population would lose their jobs, and the remaining labor would be so expensive that prices for goods and services would skyrocket. That’s the exact burden the minimum wage places on our poor and low-skilled workers, and ultimately every American consumer.

    If our leaders cannot even grasp this simple economic concept, how can we expect them to deal with the more complicated problems that currently confront us?

     

    1. Bill Marshall

      the next time you are pumping your own gas in the rain dont just think about the teenager who could have been pumping it for you, think about the auto mechanic he could have becomehad the minimum wage not denied him a job. Many auto mechanics used to learn their trade while working as pump jockeys. Between fill-ups, checking tire pressure, and washing windows, they would spend a lot of time helping and learning from mechanics.
      the only way to increase wages is to increase worker productivity If wages could be raised simply by government mandate we could set the minimum wage at $100 per hour and solve all problems. It should be clear that, at that level, most of the population would lose their jobs, and the remaining labor would be so expensive that prices for goods and services would skyrocket. That’s the exact burden the minimum wage places on our poor and low-skilled workers, and ultimately every American consumer.
      If our leaders cannot even grasp this simple economic concept, how can we expect them to deal with the more complicated problems that currently confront us?

      Your post is fascinating… so much hyperbole, and kernels of truth (and, perhaps some ‘classism’)

      I support the concept of a ‘training wage’ (if not abused) for teenagers, but they are not typically ‘on their own’… still living with parents… savings for college, helping out the parents…

      Why do you assert they could ‘aspire’ to be an auto mechanic?  Why not a Mechanical Engineer?  Auto designer?  Classism?

      Setting minimum wage at $100/hr:  Ok… I graduated college, became professionally registered in two engineering fields, was a worker/manager, and at the peak of my career (35 years), I earned ~ $60/hour in wages… your $100/hr is pure hyperbole (I’d use another term, but would be held up in ‘moderation’).

      You are correct in asserting that excessive mandatory wages, regardless of ‘value added’, just means skyrocketing inflation… or, severe unemployment.

      It is a balancing act…

      do we just let the unskilled die in the streets? 

      Now, that’s interesting that you put that in a separate post… to which I’d play the dystopia card… “Why not?  We already do that with the homeless/addicted” (see Dicken’s ‘Christmas Carol’, or ‘survival of the fittest’), and “the world would be better off without them!” (less pressure on housing, economic development/growth).

      But I have to agree (said earlier, above) that there is a place for training or apprentice wages for teenagers trying to learn and find their niche.  I ‘volunteered’ (zero pay) to intern/apprentice @ a City PW engineering function… was still living with my parents, had already earned money at a summer job (for college, which I was able to attend due to aptitude, partial scholarship, and parental support), and did a credible enough job that they created a position for that, which  accepted for two more summers.  It’s called ‘initiative’, (and/or ‘education/developing a resume).

      I built up enough money to ease the costs for my parents (lower middle-class incomes), and have a bit of ‘spending money’… (And yes, Alan M now we know you can insert your “Aww”… I’m doing it for you, so you don’t have to spend a comment…)  Awww

      Chris G… friendly suggestion… your points would be better taken without hyperbole… if you care…

    2. Richard_McCann

      the only way to increase wages is to increase worker productivity

      That’s incorrect. Most wage changes occur due to changes in the bargaining balance of power. In the late 19th and early 20th century as worker productivity skyrocketed in the U.S., wage were stagnant or fell because the aggregation of economic and political power by ever larger corporations beat down worker bargain power. It took the unionization of the 1930s to shift that balance and wages rose steadily through the early 1970s as productivity also rose. Most of those wage increases came from corporations sharing their profit gains with workers. Unions were undermined for a variety of reasons in the 1970s (including a stall in progress in physical production technologies starting in 1972) and the Reagan Administration committed the coup de grace. Despite resuming technological progress in the 1980s, corporations have been taking a growing share of net revenues. A recent study showed that corporate net income shares rose from 2% of revenues in 1980 to 7-8% now. In the meantime median household income in constant dollars (adjusting for inflation) has stayed the same or fallen over the last four decades while the share of wealth for the top 1% has multiplied several fold. Clearly productivity and profitability has risen significantly, yet workers have not shared in those gains. The only explanation is a shift back in bargaining power.

      1. Keith Y Echols

        While I don’t disagree with what you wrote, I think the worker/employer pendulum swung to the other extreme by the 1960’s.  It got to the point where unionized labor in US manufacturing couldn’t compete with non-unionized global competitors.  So by the 1980’s manufacturing jobs started to leave the United States for cheaper labor markets.  It was primarily the information age, the rise of computers, networking, the internet and eCommerce that was one of the primary catalysts for re-invigorating the US economy.  But with the rise of the information industries, the pendulum never swung back and the unskilled and semi-skilled jobs never fully returned.

    3. Alan Miller

      If our leaders cannot even grasp this simple economic concept, how can we expect them to deal with the more complicated problems that currently confront us?

      Truer words, CG, Truer words . . . #sigh#

  3. Chris Griffith

    Machines get better every year, at just about everything, which means the value of low-end jobs is heading toward 0$. When all menial jobs can be done by robots, and everyone has already bought enough robots to do them, do we just let the unskilled die in the streets? 
     

    1. Ron Oertel

      Universal basic income.

      But I’m thinking that it would be a lot more efficient to just replace everyone with robots.  Including those who currently patronize fast-food restaurants, those who write blogs, comment on them, . . .

      Just one person’s opinion – submitted before he is also replaced by a robot. 🙂

      1. Bill Marshall

        Who are the ‘wealthy’?  $$$ amounts…

        Current income?  Inherited assets? Savings, investments? Pensions?

        Please define your term…  I might well agree, I might well disagree with,

        That’s where guaranteed minimum income financed by a tax on the wealthy who earn income from investing in those robots.

        Meant as a friendly request for clarification.

        I may well agree or disagree… for billionaires, I agree.  For those with wages/benefits < $ 100,000 year, less than $100,000 in assets, not so much… where do you draw the line as to income/benefits/assets?

        Second part… does UBI require ‘earning’?  (as far as effort, contributing to society, within one’s ability to do so)

        Meant as fair questions…

  4. Chris Griffith

    Describe it in the way that even a liberal could understand it. 🤗

     

    Tariffs raise the price of imports, thus reducing imports.

     

    Taxes on sinful products raise the price of the products, thus reducing consumption of sinful products.

     

    The minimum wage laws raises the price of unskilled labor, thus increasing the consumption of unskilled labor.

     

    See anything inconsistent there?

     

    A price rise is a price rise is a price rise.

     

      1. Keith Olson

        Not so David, two of his statements are fairly accurate.

        Though I’m not on board with “The minimum wage laws raises the price of unskilled labor, thus increasing the consumption of unskilled labor.”

        1. Alan Miller

          Generally sin taxes work because demand is inelastic for those types of goods

          Also true.  Though at a certain point a large portion of the market for the sin goes underground, and is therefore untaxed.

      2. Alan Miller

        You realize all of your statements are either completely or partially false?

        Actually those are some of the laws of economics, just a solid as the laws of physics (and just as complicated to observe, measure, and predict outcomes).

  5. Chris Griffith

    I noticed you have a picture of McDonald’s at the top of the page did you know that
    McDonald’s and IBM are in a joint effort to figure out ways to use AI to reduce the workforce ?  I wonder how many other companies are out there trying to replace the poor with artificial intelligence. The only thing our Great society at the moment is doing is increasing the amount of people that we’re going to have sleeping in the streets if we don’t do something about it there will be a whole bunch more out  there and we are going to pay the price.
     
    https://www.cnbc.com/2021/10/27/mcdonalds-enters-strategic-partnership-with-ibm-to-automate-drive-thru-lanes.html?__source=androidappshare
     

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