Researchers surveyed more than 400 fast-food workers in Los Angeles County.
Nearly two-thirds said they had been victims of wage theft since the pandemic began.
"This is an industry with longstanding issues and COVID has exacerbated it," UCLA's Tia Koonse said.
When indoor dining closed, drive-thru traffic boomed, with Taco Bell alone servicing 30 million more cars in the fall of 2020 compared to the year before. But fast-food industry workers, most making no more than minimum wage, suffered the consequences of working in tight quarters through what is now at least four stressful waves of COVID-19.
In Los Angeles County, a survey commissioned by local public health authorities, conducted by researchers at the UCLA Labor Center and released Tuesday, found that nearly a quarter of the region's 150,000 fast-food employees — 23% — have contracted the coronavirus since March 2020, a rate significantly higher than the general population.
Around two-thirds of those employees are female and nine in 10 are people of color, per census data.
Overall, 1.75 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported since the start of the pandemic in Los Angeles County, which is home to roughly 10 million people.
"Fast food workers were really on the front lines during the pandemic and that means, just like soldiers, they're going to die more," Tia Koonse, legal and policy research manager at the UCLA Labor Center, told Insider.
A January 2021 study, analyzing death records from the California Department of Public Health, found a 39% increase in mortality among food and agriculture workers during the pandemic, with the greatest increase in risk falling on cooks, who typically work in confined and poorly ventilated environments.
The risk is compounded by a lack of vigilance on the part of employers. According to the UCLA survey, many workers reported that, when there was a potentially deadly outbreak at work, their employers dropped the ball when it came to warning others, with 42% of respondents saying they were only "rarely" informed of an outbreak.
Nearly two-thirds of fast-food workers also experienced wage theft. That includes nearly half reporting that they had to buy their own uniforms or equipment. Most who worked overtime hours also said they were not paid time-and-a-half, as required by law.
The hours they did work were also immensely stressful, with low-wage employees asked to enforce COVID-19 safety measures that some customers and coworkers chose to defy. More than half of fast-food workers said they experienced "negative interactions" with patrons or colleagues over such measures, such as mandatory masking, with 34% saying they had been yelled at.
A majority who expressed concern about COVID-19 to their boss said that they, at best, only partly addressed the issue; nearly one in five said they were themselves retaliated against.
The results of the survey should prompt policymakers to take more responsibility for enforcing COVID-19 measures, Koonse told Insider, as opposed to burdening employees who are already on the verge of burnout. That means more targeted inspections of workplaces — and turning to workers themselves for feedback.
"This is an industry with longstanding issues," Koonse said, "and COVID has exacerbated it."
The survey was conducted online and included responses from 417 workers at 118 companies across the nation's most populous county.
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