There have been many confrontations over workplace safety since the pandemic began. One of the strangest has just been resolved: the case of the dog diapers.
Workers at a McDonald’s restaurant in Oakland, Calif., said their employer provided them with masks made from the diapers in lieu of bona fide masks at the start of the pandemic last year. They were also given masks made from coffee filters, they said.
After complaining, the employees said, they were given proper disposable masks but were told to wash and reuse them until they frayed. The allegations were included in a subsequent lawsuit, which contended that the franchise owner’s inattention to safety had resulted in a Covid-19 outbreak among workers and their families.
Now the workers and the franchise owner are announcing a settlement in which the restaurant has agreed to enforce a variety of safety measures, including social distancing, contact tracing and paid sick leave policies. The settlement also calls for a management-worker committee to meet monthly to discuss compliance with the mandated measures and whether new ones are needed.
“The committee was one of those things that was extremely important,” Angely Rodriguez Lambert, a former worker at the McDonald’s who was one of the plaintiffs, said through an interpreter. “We were being treated like dogs — giving us dog diapers to use as masks. We are not dogs.”
Michael Smith, who owns and operates the store, denied all the accusations in his legal filings, and the settlement does not involve an admission of wrongdoing.
Mr. Smith said in a statement that his company began to carry out the prescribed safety measures “over a year ago” and that “we will continue to take all necessary steps to ensure that our stores remain as safe as possible.”
Lawyers for both sides said they could not comment on whether the settlement included a financial component. The original legal complaint sought money to compensate the plaintiffs for the suffering they had endured and to make them whole for losses and costs they had incurred while sick.
Beyond safety lapses and risks to workers, the lawsuit accused the franchise owner of “assisting in the creation” of a public nuisance because, according to the complaint, workers who became infected on the job spread the coronavirus in their community. The lawsuit said at least 25 people, including a worker’s 10-month-old child, had become infected from an outbreak that emanated from the restaurant.
Workers at other restaurants and in other industries, such as meatpacking and e-commerce, have also filed public-nuisance lawsuits during the pandemic, with mixed results.
One in Illinois recently led a judge to issue a permanent injunction requiring a corporate-owned McDonald’s there to ensure that unvaccinated workers are sufficiently distanced from one another and that they wear masks when distancing isn’t possible. The judge had previously found that the restaurant was already providing sufficient amounts of protective equipment and sanitizer and adequately monitoring Covid cases.
Under a settlement in that case, restaurant managers must also schedule a meeting on company time with any employee seeking guidance about Covid safety protocols through the end of next month.
McDonald’s admitted no wrongdoing in the Illinois case and provided no financial compensation to the plaintiffs.
The workers’ frustration in Oakland began to boil over in May 2020 when several became infected with Covid, according to the lawsuit. Ms. Lambert said that she had asked two supervisors if she could go home after beginning to feel ill, but that they had insisted she finish her shift, working near several other employees. She later tested positive for the coronavirus.
The legal complaint described similar encounters between managers and other workers exhibiting Covid symptoms. It said they, too, had been told that they must work a full shift if no one was available to cover for them.
Ms. Lambert and other workers argued that they should have been made aware sooner that co-workers had symptoms of the virus or had tested positive for it.
The store’s workers, who were not unionized, organized a strike late that May to protest their treatment, and the store shut down. A lawyer for Mr. Smith said he had closed the store because of the worker Covid infections.
The workers sued a few weeks later, after complaints with state and local health authorities did not appear to elicit an effective response, and a judge ordered the restaurant to remain closed until it received approval from the county to reopen and could carry out a variety of safety measures. It reopened in July 2020.
The plaintiffs said they had endured physical, emotional and financial hardship — running up debt to pay for medical bills and other costs while they were sick and received no income.
The McDonald’s Corporation was not a defendant in the Oakland lawsuit or a party to the settlement, but the legal complaint argued that the company “misleadingly sought through extensive advertising to reassure customers” that its stores had effective safety protocols in place.
BJ Chisholm, a lawyer for the Oakland workers, said the plaintiffs believed that McDonald’s should take responsibility for worker safety at all of its stores and franchises but decided not to sue the corporation because they felt they could resolve the situation quickly by working with Mr. Smith.
“It’s clear McDonald’s could have helped creating conditions here that would have led to a safer work environment sooner,” she added.
The company said in a statement, “While we’re confident that any outlier conduct like that alleged in these complaints does not reflect what has broadly happened and continues to happen across 14,000 U.S. McDonald’s locations, we’re no less focused on ensuring that we have clear processes and the right resources to promote the safety and well-being of crew and customers.”
On Friday, the Oakland restaurant informed employees that a worker who had last worked there on July 31 had tested positive for the coronavirus and might have been sick with Covid on that date. The store shut down that day while management had it cleaned, and reopened the next day.
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