Belabored Stories: Demanding Protections at the Drive-Thru Window

Belabored Stories: Demanding Protections at the Drive-Thru Window

McDonald’s boasted about distributing protective equipment to employees. But one worker said masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves were only available “for a brief period of time. So it was only to get us to be quiet.”

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Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at


In California, McDonald’s drive-thru service is still open, serving a “limited menu” to customers stuck indoors during the pandemic. But in early April, workers arrived in McDonald’s parking lots donning masks and holding placards to show the public that it was not business as usual at the fast-food giant.

One of the protesters was Irving Garza, who, as a drive-thru worker at a McDonald’s in San Jose, is the primary interface between the restaurant and customers, in a city that recently registered one of the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 infection in Santa Clara County. Though he is tucked behind the drive-thru window, he feels unsafe at work since he is constantly passing food, cash, and credit cards back and forth to the customers who stream past his window. He and several coworkers decided to stop showing up to work. Their informal strike—paralleling the protests of many other food service workers across the country, from grocery clerks to tomato pickers—aimed to put pressure on the manager to provide safety protections on the job

At his drive-thru window, Garza explained, customers would drop cards or cash in a bin, supposedly to minimize physical contact. But he still had to touch the card and pass back their change, not knowing if they were infected or if they just coughed into their hand. “I have to go and reach out and really be careful [so] I don’t drop their coins. . . . I’m breathing the same air that they’re breathing, you know, and it’s very, very close proximity,” he said. “It’s less than three feet apart. So I’m putting myself at a big risk.”

At Garza’s McDonald’s branch—one of the small minority of McDonald’s outlets that is owned by the corporation itself, rather than a franchise operator—he estimated that “about three-quarters of the customers that I would get don’t wear masks and don’t have gloves on. They just handle things with their bare hands. . . . [E]specially right now in these times, it’s alarming. It’s nerve-wracking to really [see this] and not have any protection.”

Although McDonald’s has offered two weeks of paid sick leave for workers affected by the virus at its corporate-owned stores, workers wanted more health protections in light of two McDonald’s workers in Los Angeles testing positive for COVID-19. Garza said, “If one of us does end up getting sick, then McDonald’s [should pay] for the medical bills, because we’re on the job and we’re getting sick because of it.” 

They also pushed for hazard pay and a more “just workplace,” Garza said, citing incidents of chronic bullying among staff that the manager had neglected to address.

McDonald’s has boasted that it has so far ordered “over 100 million non-medical grade masks” for its workforce and has been distributing them to “high risk areas.” Yet Garza said that, although his manager did initially provide some masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves, “It was only for a brief period of time. So it was only to get us, you know, to be quiet. So he thinks we’re going to be quiet, but we’re not.”

When Garza decided to strike, his hours had already been drastically cut—he was down to ten hours the week before the strike, and he feared his boss would retaliate against him by cutting his hours further. As a main income-earner for his mother and several siblings, he was facing the dilemma that many “essential” service workers have encountered: needing more work in order to support his family and wanting to stay home in order to protect his health. He said getting sick would “wreak havoc” on him, because he could not cope with taking on more debt for medical care.

“I don’t want to go to work,” he said, “because . . . I don’t want to risk anyone in my family getting sick. But at the same time, I want to go to work, because I need that money. But it’s hard to decide. I [decided] it’s better to stay home. . . . I don’t want to risk my life, basically.”

Garza said he would go back to work if he were assured that workers would have adequate safety protections. Until then, he said, “McDonald’s should listen to its workers, and really pay attention to everything that’s going on. Listen to their demands, because they are all at the bottom of the pyramid, and we’re not serving you. You are serving us, because we’re the ones that are working. We’re the ones who are making the sales happen, who are working on the line. . . . So just listen to the workers.”

Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent‘s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.