Longtime Fast Food Workers Strike For The First Time

Though Orozco valued the purpose of her work and was proud to follow in her mother’s steps — “We both put food on the table for people,” she said — she used her own experience as a cautionary tale for her three children.

“I tell them, ‘Do well in school so you don’t end up like me,’” she said. “It’s kind of embarrassing to be in fast food.”

As a teenager in Castroville, California, she said, she often skipped school. Her grandparents had arrived from Mexico in the late 1960s as farmworking jobs proliferated across Salinas Valley, including in Castroville, the country’s artichoke capital. Orozco recalled grade school teachers mentioning Cesar Chavez and the farmworker strikes that reached the town in 1975.

The farming sector still provides a fifth of the town’s jobs, but wage rates didn’t keep pace with living costs, and by the time Orozco was old enough to remember, Castroville was part of the wide swath of California farming towns sliding into economic peril . By 2019, the poverty rate for households classified as Hispanic was over 40%, more than double the rate for white households, and the city’s median income was around $5,000 below the national average.

In the early 2000s, when Orozco was 16, her 17-year-old sister, who was pregnant, got sent to juvenile detention for fighting, she said. After the baby was born, Orozco took care of him while her mother was at work. She returned to high school a year later but was so far behind the rest of her classmates that she decided to drop out.

Over the next few years, she worked at a Taco Bell, a Jack in the Box in Rocklin, then one in Merced, and then the one in Sacramento, where her husband’s family lives.

With her income combined with her husband’s construction earnings, they could afford to rent a two-bedroom house for $1,400 in north Sacramento. The kids share one room. Her husband’s mother, who works at a McDonald’s, stays in the other bedroom. Orozco and her husband sleep on a pull-out bed in the living room.

During the pandemic, Orozco started taking GED classes, studying alongside her remotely learning kids. She’d head to work around 3 pm for the 30-minute commute along six-lane thoroughfares, passing at least three other Jack in the Box locations until she reached her store in a Sacramento County suburb.

After seeing the strike on Madison Avenue, Orozco and her coworkers discussed the possibility. The demands at the center of the strike resonated with the women — though their air conditioner was not broken, the only one in their store was in the lobby and did little to cool the 100-plus degree heat in the kitchen, Orozco and Bernal said . None of them knew any of the striking workers, nor anyone from the advocacy group organizing them, Fight For 15. Orozco recalled thinking, “I hope they come to our store.”

The next week, two of the group’s organizers showed up at Orozco’s store and spoke with a day-shift worker, who conveyed their message to other workers. They planned a strike for November, calling for back pay for break time they’d worked off-the-clock. In the complaint they later filed, Orozco, Bernal, and two other workers said that a manager “threatened to call immigration” after overhearing discussions about a possible strike.

Three night-shift workers went on strike the next day. Two day-shift workers who had supported the strike decided to back out and continued working, Orozco and Bernal said. But among the protesters were two off-duty day-shift workers who had previously expressed reservations about participating.

They all returned to work the day after that.

Two months later, Orozco said, she tested positive for COVID. At least six workers at the branch “have been working with COVID-like symptoms or home sick with COVID from Dec. 30, 2021, to Jan. 13, 2022,” according to the complaint, which was filed on Jan. 14. One manager “said they were going to cut Crystal’s hours, after she stayed home sick with COVID,” the complaint states, adding that the store and regional managers were “encouraging workers to work sick” and “cover up or not disclose their symptoms to their coworkers.”

In her statement for the complaint, Bernal said that she told her manager she felt sick and wanted to go home on the 12th, and then showed her “that my hands were shaking from the chills and I put her hand on my face to feel how I am sick and I told her I went to the pharmacy and the pharmacist told me I probably have COVID.” She reminded her manager responding, “Don’t worry, everyone has it, you can still work. Just wear a mask and don’t tell anyone.”

Bernal said that she continued working the rest of the shift, explaining in her statement, “I am scared because it is just me and my son, and I don’t know how we would survive if I get retaliated against and lose hours or my job.”

Four workers stayed home from work over the next five days, which Orozco and Bernal describe as both a strike and a quarantine. Because of her time off work, Orozco said her paycheck was less than half of the usual $900. Her mother-in-law used $400 from savings to help cover that month’s rent. When they returned to work, Orozco and Bernal said the store manager cut their night shift from at least six and a half hours to sometimes as few as four.

In response to the complaints the workers filed, OSHA found violations at three of Yadav’s Jack in the Box locations in Sacramento County, though not the one Orozco worked at. The agency cited each of the stores for failing to “establish, implement, and maintain an effective, written COVID-19 Prevention Program.” At two of the stores, workers continued to work even after close contact with someone who tested positive, and at one, management didn’t contact trace infected employees. Yadav’s company was fined a total of $2,985.

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