California Forbids In-N-Out – and Most Other Employers – from Un-masking Workers

For at least another year and a half, California employers won’t be able to follow In-N-Out’s lead in banning workers from wearing masks on the job.

The state’s COVID-19 workplace rules protecting workers’ rights to decide for themselves whether to wear face coverings are locked in at least until February 2025 and could be extended.

Those regulations prevented the iconic Irvine-based burger chain from applying its new policy prohibiting workers from wearing face masks in its home state, where it operates about 70% of its restaurants.

Instead, In-N-Out’s mask ban will apply to workers at its restaurants in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Texas and Utah. It has a total of 116 locations in those states.

In a memo, the company said it wants to “emphasize the importance of customer service. And the ability to show our Associates’ smiles and other facial features.”

It is allowing employees to wear masks if they present a medical note that “clearly states the reason for the exemption.”

Different policy in CA, Oregon

In-N-Out released a different masking policy for employees in California and in Oregon that leaves the choice to mask up to each individual worker. That approach complies with California and Oregon standards that provide continuous protections to employees.

In a way, the split is a reminder of California’s more cautious response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Democratic state was the first to order its residents to shelter in place and shut down non-essential activity. Throughout the pandemic, state health officials have updated guidelines and rules to adapt to evolving transmission patterns.

In-N-Out went along with those rules during the pandemic, although the company contested local indoor vaccine mandates in the fall of 2021. Its refusal to check customers’ vaccination records led to temporary shutdowns of restaurants in San Francisco and in Pleasant Hill of Contra Costa County, according to press reports.

Cal/OSHA, the agency charged with ensuring occupational safety in California, earlier this year updated its COVID-19 requirements. Among them: “Employers must allow employees to wear face coverings if they voluntarily choose to do so, unless it would create a safety hazard.”

Employers can require masks

California employers can go a step further and require workers to wear a mask, as long as they also provide flexibility for someone who can’t wear one due to medical reasons or a disability.

The state’s pandemic-related regulations for employers have gradually eased, but employers are still required to take several steps in the interest of protecting workers, according to Cal/OSHA’s COVID-19 prevention regulations.

These include:

  • Notifying employees of COVID-19 cases in the workplace.
  • Providing face coverings and free tests to employees during workplace outbreaks, which is defined as at least three cases during a seven-day period.
  • Improving indoor ventilation and air filtration to prevent transmission.

California labor organizations plan to continue advocating for public health rules that protect fast-food workers.

Ingrid Vilorio, a Castro Valley Jack In the Box worker and SEIU member, said fast-food employees often lacked basic protections during the pandemic.

“That’s why workers like me went on strike and even testified during Cal/OSHA meetings on the need for emergency safety standards that would keep our colleagues, customers and families safe,” she said.

“Keeping the right to mask is more about our freedom and power to make decisions that will keep us safe at work,” Vilorio added.

Some fast-food workers want masks

Cal/OSHA enforces its rules with inspections following complaints or accidents, the agency said in an email. It also conducts scheduled inspections.

Alicia Riley, an assistant professor of sociology at UC Santa Cruz who conducted health equity research during the pandemic, said the In-N-Out memo to employees struck her as narrow.

“It assumes a lot about why someone would want to wear a mask. It doesn’t consider the situation we know many workers, especially fast-food workers, are in, which is that they’re not living alone,” Riley said. “They may not be at high risk of serious illness, but they may live with someone who is.”

Earlier this month, the California Supreme Court sided with an employer in a case in which a Bay Area woman sued her husband’s employer after she became severely ill when he caught COVID on the job and brought it home. The court ruled she could not claim workers’ compensation.

Riley said In-N-Out’s mask ban highlights workplace inequities the pandemic exposed. For example, cooks were among the 25 occupations with the most excess deaths in 2020, Riley’s research has shown.

New COVID outbreaks

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are down from three years ago, but recent outbreaks show some risk remains.

Just last week the Los Angeles County public health department reported an uptick in COVID-19 cases and in virus concentration in wastewater following the July 4th weekend. The department said it also is seeing new outbreaks in nursing homes, where residents are highly susceptible to illness. In the span of two weeks, the department said it had opened 23 outbreak investigations.

Because the virus will continue to be around, public health experts say workplace rules, such as allowing workers to mask if they choose, make sense.

“When we think of a broader public health perspective, measures that help us reduce transmission of any disease that are minimally impactful on other individuals are certainly things we should be interested in maintaining,” said Shira Shafir, an epidemiology professor at UCLA.

“Being able to maintain a workforce, being able to minimize the risk of an outbreak occurring at a facility, these are things that are within the best interest of the business as well as in the best interest of the public,” Shafir said.

Ana B. Ibarra is a reporter with CalMatters


  1. This article assumes, but cites no evidence, that masks are or have been effective in preventing the transmission of Covid. Yet, there is overwhelming evidence that masks are not effective.

    It was the general consensus of the medical community, including the WHO and CDC (and Dr. Fauci), before it became politically expedient in 2020 to pretend otherwise, that masks are in reality ineffective for respiratory illnesses. The notion that masks work is not only false but was never believed by our overlords. Indeed, there are plenty of examples of mask kabuki theatre by government officials all over the world, masking for the camera and then quickly removing them when they think they are no longer on camera, or attending parties unmasked while the serf-like servers are masked. Worse than vile hypocrisy, it was always a tacit admission of the underlying lie.

    It would be nice to see some actual journalism on the subject of masks and Covid instead of reliance on government propaganda.

  2. Right. Cause a sports media company is the best source about medicine. So why do doctors wear masks in surgery if they don’t work? And why do you care? If it makes the employee feel better about coming to their job that frankly I wouldn’t want to do, just relax and let them. And FYI there was no evidence that Covid was airborne until it was. That is why the mask protocol changed.

  3. Michael —

    Ian Miller, the author of the article, has written a book on the subject. His article discusses a survey of numerous peer-reviewed studies. You can do your own Google search and locate the studies. Or follow him on Twitter. He has discussed the evidence that masks don’t work to prevent the spread of Covid on a nearly daily basis for three years now.

    Doctors do not wear masks during surgery to protect from respiratory viruses; the particles are too small.

    I care about mask rules because we were mandated to wear masks. It was a civil rights violation, without any evidentiary justification. Arbitrary and capricious. The San Jose City Council imposed mask mandates in June 2020 without an iota of evidence of efficacy; I know this because I did a records request confirming the fact (zero documents at City Hall supporting the efficacy of the mask mandate). And it is emerging from FOIA requests and ongoing discovery in litigation that the federal government instructed social media companies to censor divergent Covid voices so that the public would continue believing regime propaganda. (See, Missouri v. Biden; see also, Berenson v. Biden). Greatest infringement of free speech rights in our history, with great real world damage.

    Mask mandates were not imposed because of science. (Masks are actually harmful, trapping bacteria between the fabric and the face.) Mandates were imposed because of primitive fear and ignorance of the sort that you would expect in the Middle Ages, not from educated elites in the 21st century. And the federal government is still to this day appealing the court injunction against the air travel mask mandate, not because of science but because they want to continue to wield administrative power to abuse our rights on a whim, without the need for actual laws.

    The science around masks didn’t change. The zeitgeist did. Mass hysteria abated, as it always eventually does.

  4. Masks are useless and most young adults wear them to cover acne and insecurities. California is determined to never move on from the arbitrary and ineffective mandate/lockdown culture that has literally destroyed the states economy. The next few years will in CA, as the last few have been, come with a further diminishing quality of life for all.


    And the old talking point “well surgeons wear them during surgery.” That’s a fair point, unless you’re informed and looked at the many pre-pandemic studies on masks in surgery rooms, or “theatre.” Basically, they do it because it has always been the standard policy. But, no studies exist demonstrating it stops the spread of anything. Study after study state this.

    When people make that statement – they just assume the masks have a purpose and are effective in addressing it. That couldn’t be farther from the truth – if you’re willing to do the research instead of being manipulated.

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