Santa Clara Co. to Probe Covid-Related Workplace Safety

Fast food corporations have come under increased scrutiny under the coronavirus pandemic—and not a moment too soon, according to members of Fight For $15 and a Union, a movement advocating for higher wages.

Although a wage hike tends to be the primary concern for Fight For $15, it currently has an equally important battle on its hands: the fight for safe working conditions.

The nationwide campaign has hit home locally, as the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors recently approved a plan to investigate complaints of unsafe working conditions and whistleblower retaliation in fast-food restaurants.

Santa Clara County becomes just the second in California behind Los Angeles—to investigate fast food workers’ claims, according to Fight For $15.

Under the proposal approved last week, County Counsel will work with the District Attorney’s office and report back to the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 15.

Fight For $15 believes corporations are prioritizing profit over the health of workers.

San Jose resident Maria Ruiz said she was fired from the San Jose McDonald’s at 2040 N. First St. in July after organizing a wildcat strike in March to protest what she said was a glaring lack of personal protective equipment (PPEs) available for employees.

In a Nov. 17 letter to the BOS, Alynn Umel, the national organizing director of the Fight For $15 and a Union, shared the story of a Milpitas Jack in the Box worker who reported in a complaint that she was fired after following doctor’s order to quarantine after she was exposed to Covid-19 and was exhibiting the virus’ symptoms.

It’s no secret that fast food kitchens are crowded and fast-paced, with small work areas and frequently shared equipment. That makes it a prime place to contract and spread the virus. Fight For $15 and a Union claims fast food eateries have failed to provide employees with proper PPE, hazard pay and paid sick leave.

On the same day the BOS approved the referral, Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), who chairs the Committee on Labor and Employment, held an informational hearing with state agencies and frontline workers to discuss the need for improved workplace health and safety protections during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The data is clear: millions of Californians are facing alarmingly unsafe working conditions during this pandemic,” Kalra said in a prepared statement. “The safety of California’s workers, especially those on the front lines, must be our top priority. While the state has issued industry guidance, conducted targeted on-site inspections, and provided employer training, it is not enough. We must approach our health and safety policy through a lens of empowering workers. Our workers must know their rights and how to assert them if their workplace is unsafe due to Covid-19. They should be able to file a complaint without fear of retaliation.”

4 Comments

  1. PART I: PROFITS EXPLAINED

    Profit and profit-seeking are the core and common link between a large number of distinct “business models” that exist in the U.S. economy. At its most basic and logical level, profit is the difference between the marketable value of the goods or services produced by a worker in a given period of time and the value that the worker takes home in wages for having produced those goods or services.

    Mario grills hamburgers, fries potatoes, makes salads and dispenses soft drinks, the only items on the menu at the restaurant where he works. The foods he has prepared during his workday are sold to customers and bring in $400 in sales revenues to the restaurant. Of this amount, the costs of supplies used to prepare the sold foods are $100. The amount of rent paid by the restaurant owner to his landlord plus the amount paid for utilities plus the interest the owner pays the banker for the business loan plus the fees and taxes the owner pays to governments at all levels sum to another $150. Mario receives $100 in wages for his day on the job. That leaves a $50 surplus for the owner to take home as profit ($400 in revenues = $100 input costs + $150 in rent, utilities, interest, fees and taxes + $100 in wages + $50 in profits).

    Mario’s work–and only Mario’s work–generated the owner’s profits. All the raw foodstuffs and inanimate grills, ovens, refrigerators, soft-drink dispensers, cash registers, counters, tables and chairs combined could never produce a single hamburger or single French fry. Only living labor, in this case Mario’s, animates and enables the preparation and sale of food to customers. Without Mario, or another living worker, there would be no production, no revenue and no profit, just raw foodstuffs and inanimate equipment and furniture. Period.

    This would be true whether the owner is a culinary genius offering extravagant meals or whether he/she runs a greasy spoon. In general, inventiveness and entrepreneurial smarts cannot generate profit on their own; they must be combined with living, breathing labor to realize a marketable product or service. The profits derive from the animating power of mental and physical labor. Period.

    Education and culture under capitalism teach us that employers offer workers opportunities to earn a living but hiring workers–and paying them less than the marketable value they produce–is also the only way to earn a profit. Indeed, no profit-seeking owner/employer would or could pay the workers he/she hires the full marketable value of what those workers produce. Thus, Mario’s employment is, in reality, also the only way for the employer to earn any profit whatsoever.

    It also follows logically that, all other things being equal, the less Mario is paid, the greater the owner’s profit and vice versa. And by extension, what applies to Mario applies to hired workers generally: such workers as a group animate production and sales and, as a group, receive wages that, in value terms, are less than the marketable value of the products and services they collectively produce.

    (Of course, the owner and/or members of his family could have done the work and generated surpluses (profits) as well but that would by definition be a family-owned and -operated business the size of which would be limited by the number of family members. In the above example, Mario was hired by someone other than a family member, like the millions of food industry workers in the U.S. today.)

  2. PART II: PROFIT AND HUMAN WELFARE

    Given the nature of profits (see PART I), the fact that large corporations like McDonald’s and Jack in the Box (both mentioned in Mr. Lee’s article) and thousands of others would seek to minimize expenditures on worker safety is completely understandable. In a profit-driven enterprise, expenditures detract from profits so reducing expenditures is an exigency, something that owners and managers spend much of their time and energy doing. Wages for most large corporations are a main expenditure and reducing real wages is one of the ways to boost profits. Lower wages, of course, mean working people live at materially reduced living levels.

    In the absence of a minimum wage, health and safety rules and regulations and an effective mechanism to enforce these, workers are vulnerable to economic exploitation and occupational hazards. The COVID-19 pandemic poses an extreme danger to health and safety for workers who must report to job sites.

    One of the most egregious cases is that of Tyson Foods, one of the largest meatpacking corporations in the world. Tyson management has consistently downplayed the dangers of the corona virus, forced workers to remain on the job who showed symptoms, failed to provide protective equipment and, with the help of a pliant state and federal governments, was allowed to keep operating throughout the pandemic to fulfill a six-fold increase in exports of pork to China and to hide the full extent of the COVID-19 outbreak among its employees. Meanwhile, Tyson plants have become the largest clusters of COVID-19 outbreaks in Iowa with infection rates in several plants at almost 60% in May and June 2020 with dozens of deaths to date (https://iowacapitaldispatch.com/2020/11/18/lawsuit-tyson-managers-bet-money-on-how-many-workers-would-contract-covid-19/;https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/outbreak-at-iowa-pork-plant-was-larger-than-state-reported/2020/07/22/5a47c9fe-cc32-11ea-99b0-8426e26d203b_story.html).

    The company lobbied the state and federal governments to both keep plants open while large numbers of workers were getting infected and to be exempt from liability for death and injuries to its workers. That corporations in pursuit of profit would skimp on, or completely ignore, employee health and safety measures amounts to premeditated, reckless and criminal endangerment. That captured public authorities at the municipal, county, state and/or federal levels would ignore such endangerment and conditions is no less reckless, no less criminal. Tyson is guilty of manslaughter, if not outright murder, of its workers aided and abetted by state and federal authorities.

    The pursuit of profit, in this case, has resulted in deadly consequences for the workers who enable profit. To a significant extent, that is what is at stake in thousands of fast food establishments in California. That the County government is only now paying attention to this serious health and safety issue as it effects essential workers is a testament to the degree of success profit-driven industries have had in capturing government. Rather than pro-actively and rigorously monitoring and closing down establishments in violation of COVID-19 rules and regulations to protect workers and the public, it was left to Maria Ruiz and Fight for $15 and a Union to organize public will and force the County to act.

    In a world of occupational and safety hazards, not to mention pandemics, the profit motive is deadly. With constant downward pressure on wage costs and other expenditures, cutting corners physically endangers workers not only in the meatpacking and fast food industries, but in most industries. Keep in mind that profit-driven businesses are always seeking to reduce expenditures on disposing of waste and pollutants and mitigating the environmental damage inflicted by their production processes, resulting in health and safety fallout for millions of people. Profit-driven production, if not closely regulated, poses a real and present danger to human welfare on a large scale.

  3. > At its most basic and logical level, profit is the difference between the marketable value of the goods or services produced by a worker in a given period of time and the value that the worker takes home in wages for having produced those goods or services.

    Karl Marx: Theory of Surplus Value

    Primitive, binary thinking.

    Your mother must be mortified.

    What does Karl think is the value of the secret formula for Coca Cola locked in a safe in Atlanta?

  4. Econoclast lays out a compelling argument on the origin and impact of profit. SJOUTSIDETHEBUBBLE responds with worn and tired red-baiting. SJOTB’s game, as regular readers of San Jose Inside discover very quickly, is the ad hominem attack: bash the person making the argument, not the argument itself. This usually means the argument makes sense to a lot of people or that the critic lacks the cerebral, evidentiary and/or ethical capacity to respond the argument. It looks like all of the above apply in this case. Is it possible SJOTB has an alternative explanation for profit, maybe a fairy tale about rugged individualism, boot straps and an invisible hand?