This story was reported and written for The Los Angeles Times by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. 

A bill introduced in the California State Assembly on Thursday excoriates the fast food industry for its response to the pandemic, contending that chains have “routinely flouted” measures intended to protect the state’s 500,000 fast food workers – and their millions of customers – from COVID-19.

Introduced by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, the legislation cites complaints filed by workers with county public health departments in accusing the industry of failing to give workers adequate protective gear, denying them sick pay, requiring them to work while ill and refusing to inform them when co-workers are infected by the coronavirus.

With the pandemic, “a disempowered workforce faces a crisis in an industry with a poor history of compliance with workplace, health and safety regulations,” the legislation reads. 

The FAST Recovery Act, which stands for “Fast Food Accountability and Standards,” contains withering criticism of the industry’s response to the pandemic but doesn’t detail what new regulations it seeks to impose.

A spokesperson for the California Restaurant Association said she hadn’t seen the bill and thus couldn’t comment. 

Gonzalez said regulatory specifics will be worked out after hearings in March. She said she hopes the measure will boost the state’s enforcement of health and workplace protection laws and give workers a voice over workplace safety issues. 

The measure would be the first to impose specific workplace rules covering the burgeoning fast food industry, she said. It’s modeled on a law she introduced in 2016 to regulate the janitorial industry in response to alleged sexual assault by supervisors exposed in a collaborative investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, Frontline, the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, Univision and KQED.

The bill doesn’t refer to any fast food companies by name. Gonzalez said it is aimed at changing industrywide standards for workplace safety. 

“We want to empower workers to have some sort of voice on the job,” Gonzalez said.

The industry has been “rife with abuse, low pay, few benefits, and minimal job security, with California workers subject to high rates of employment violations, including wage theft, sexual harassment and discrimination, as well as heightened health and safety risks,” the measure states.

Gonzalez said she wrote the bill with input from the Service Employees International Union, which has sought to unionize workers at McDonald’s, the nation’s dominant fast food chain, and organized strikes over COVID-19 safety.

 A report by the Los Angeles Times and Reveal cited workers’ complaints filed with federal, state and county regulators in 37 states, claiming McDonald’s employees had been pressured to work in close quarters alongside ill co-workers or come to work when they were ill themselves.

Even when cases of COVID-19 flared among workers, outlets remained open for business, according to the complaints, which were filed from March through Dec. 13. Some of the complaints date back to the chaotic early weeks of the pandemic, but many were filed in the late summer or fall, after stores had time to solidify safety protocols.

Almost all of the complaints were closed without a workplace inspection, records show.

McDonald’s has disputed COVID-19 safety complaints, saying that the vast majority of its outlets are clean and safe and that the company has gone to great lengths to enforce health and safety rules.

An SEIU spokesperson said that today, the union would lead another series of strikes around the state, this time targeting Carl’s Jr. and Burger King outlets as well as McDonald’s over COVID-19 safety issues. Gonzalez said she intended to show up to support walkouts in Sacramento.

This story was edited by Esther Kaplan and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Lance Williams can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @LanceWCIR.

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Lance Williams is a former senior reporter for Reveal, focusing on money and politics. He has twice won journalism’s George Polk Award – for medical reporting while at The Center for Investigative Reporting, and for coverage of the BALCO sports steroid scandal while at the San Francisco Chronicle. With partner Mark Fainaru-Wada, Williams wrote the national bestseller “Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports.” In 2006, the reporting duo was held in contempt of court and threatened with 18 months in federal prison for refusing to testify about their confidential sources on the BALCO investigation. The subpoenas were later withdrawn. Williams’ reporting also has been honored with the White House Correspondents’ Association’s Edgar A. Poe Award; the Gerald Loeb Award for financial reporting; and the Scripps Howard Foundation’s Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment. He graduated from Brown University and UC Berkeley. He also worked at the San Francisco Examiner, the Oakland Tribune and the Daily Review in Hayward, California.