Executive of chains like McDonald’s and Burger King believe fast food is crucial for America to survive the coronavirus outbreak. 

It looks like they’ve convinced President Donald Trump and the rest of the administration. But, some fast-food workers are less sure, concerned that people making unnecessary trips to order fast food puts both workers and customers at risk. 

On Tuesday, fast-food industry leaders including the president of McDonald’s US business and the CEOs of Chick-fil-A, Papa John’s, and Restaurant Brands International, the parent company of Burger King, Popeyes, and Tim Hortons, got on a phone call with the president. 

The top order of business, according to Restaurant Brands International CEO José Cil, was explaining chain restaurants’ ability to serve the country while people were social distancing and trying to “flatten the curve” as the coronavirus spreads.

“We have the ability to help feed America,” Cil told Business Insider on Tuesday.

“The challenge here is that when you’re dealing with a circumstance like this, if we don’t utilize businesses like Burger King, Tim’s and Popeyes … It’s really difficult for Americans to be fed, because it’s going to be difficult for them to get all their other food and necessities from the supermarket,” Cil continued. 

If you’re a fast-food employee working during the outbreak and have a story to share, email retail@businessinsider.com. 

Fast-food executives say chains are crucial during the outbreak 

drive thru

Chains’ drive-thrus will be crucial in the outbreak.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Monday, McDonald’s leadership held an internal call to discuss the company’s plan to address the coronavirus outbreak, from keeping hand sanitizer in stock to examining its marketing plan.

A portion of the call, a recording of which was obtained by Business Insider, involved working with the government on goals similar to those stated by Cil.

There were concerns about how the funding mechanism for a bill that would require employers to provide 14 days of paid sick leave to employees would impact franchisees’ financials. In addition to the call with Trump, McDonald’s leadership also spoke on Monday with members of the Trump administration, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, to discuss the chain’s approach to the coronavirus outbreak. 

Another of McDonald’s top priorities has been making sure that locations stay open, even as states and cities force restaurants to close or limit their service to delivery and drive-thru. 

“Our message is we can continue to provide fresh food for customers who want it, and in some cases [to] communities that have no other options for getting it,”  David Tovar, McDonald’s vice president of US communications, said on the call.

Some groups that have been relying on chains recently include truckers traveling around the country — unable to stock up on groceries — and people working in medicine. 

“I have gotten thanks in my drive-thru from nurses and healthcare workers for being open, because they’re like, we don’t know where we get our morning coffee if you guys weren’t open,” a McDonald’s worker named Niki told Business Insider, requesting that only her first name be used in order to speak freely. 

“I want to be open for them,” Niki said. “But for the people that are coming through just because they feel like they need a frappe or a chocolate shake — we do kind of feel like a little bit a twinge of, ‘you selfish a——.'”

With drive-thru capabilities and recent investments in delivery, chains are prepared to serve people in self-isolation in a way that many independent restaurants may not be. And, in a time of anxiety, the familiarity of fast food can serve as a comfort when many daily routines are taken away. 

“Chains were actually born out of a consumer desire for familiar and reliable places, going back to Howard Johnson’s and White Castle, so they also represent a sense of normalcy,” said Adam Chandler, the author of “Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom.”

“And, for tens of millions of people, there’s nothing more normal than picking up breakfast, lunch, or dinner through a drive-thru window,” Chandler continued. “So I imagine, as we continue to self-isolate, fast food will continue to play a big role in offering a sense of stability.” 

Trump seems willing to listen to fast-food leadership

donald trump mcdonald's fast food hamburger

Trump eats a meal from McDonald’s while campaigning.

Donald Trump for President

After his meeting with fast-food executives, Trump — a longtime fast-food fan — praised the industry in a speech, especially on its work with drive-thru and delivery. Tovar said in the internal call that McDonald’s is encouraged by the Trump administration’s response, an assessment echoed by Cil. 

“I was really encouraged and impressed with both President Trump and Secretary of Treasury Mnuchin — that both had a very good understanding of our business, the value proposition of our business,” Cil said. “And I think both were very sensitive to the needs of our franchise owners.” 

On Wednesday, Trump signed an emergency coronavirus package, which included a paid sick leave requirement, into law. The White House is also pushing for an additional $1 trillion to prop up the economy, which could include all Americans getting a check of $1,000 or more in the coming weeks. 

As restaurant bans have swept the country, locations with drive-thrus, delivery, and take-out orders have been allowed — and, in some cases, encouraged — to stay open by state and city governments. 

Aparna Mathur, a resident scholar in economic policy studies at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, said on Wednesday that allowing drive-thru at fast-food chains could help both companies and workers, provided there is still demand. Mathur also said that the government is likely to provide interest-free short-term loans to help smaller franchisees stay afloat. 

“I think the White House recognizes that many of the lowest-wage workers work in the fast-food industry and are likely to be the worst impacted,” Mathur told Business Insider.

“Even independent of any lobbying, measures are likely to be taken to protect the industry and workers,” Mathur continued. “This could involve making sure that workers are provided paid sick days and paid time off — so that they are financially secure as they take time off.”

‘The threat is so close and near I can practically smell the illness around me’

mcdonalds fries worker

Some McDonald’s workers are worried.

Reed Saxon/AP

Trump seems receptive to fast-food executives’ argument that staying open is crucial to the communities they serve. But, some fast-food workers feel that continuing business puts them at risk and fails to follow experts’ recommendations on social distancing.

“I am practically bathing in hand sanitizer,” said Niki, who has worked at McDonald’s for about a year. “I fear that I’m a soldier on the front line, bound to be the first to fall. Over cheeseburgers.” 

A McDonald’s representative Business Insider to the chain’s announcement that it would close seating areas, supply hand sanitizer, and increase cleaning and sanitizing. In the announcement, McDonald’s US President Joe Erlinger said: “We recognize many of you rely on us to provide food and beverage choices for you and your families. We take that responsibility very seriously.” 

Niki and nine other workers who spoke with Business Insider requested anonymity or that only their first name be used in order to allow them to speak freely without fear of retribution. The employees, who Business Insider confirmed were currently employed at chains including Starbucks, Dunkin’, and Popeyes, expressed similar fears.

Most of the workers are worried about contracting the coronavirus, even as locations close seating areas and focus on to-go, drive-thru, and delivery orders and promote sanitizing practices. 

“The threat is so close and near I can practically smell the illness around me,” said Ryan, a manager at Dunkin’. “I have expressed my concerns to my franchisees about sick workers and the amount of hours I will be required to work (sick or not) to keep their store running.”

A Dunkin’ representative said in a statement that the chain’s top priority is the safety and well-being of customers, employees, franchisees, and communities it serves. The representative noted that the chain has limited service nationwide to drive-thru, carry-out, and delivery, and that franchisees may choose to temporarily close stores or reduce hours. 

“As a 100% franchised system, Dunkin’ franchisees live and work in the communities they serve and independently own and operate their restaurants,” Dunkin’ said in the statement. “They are fully responsible for their own restaurant employees and have told us they are doing their best to take care of those who may be impacted by the coronavirus (COVID-19). We believe that the majority of our franchisees offer sick pay benefits. Franchisees are also telling their employees who feel ill to stay home, and our food safety standards prohibit working when ill.”

While many chains have changed their sick leave policies to allow for two weeks of paid time off if workers are exposed to or test positive for the coronavirus, workers say that will only help once they’re already sick or potentially infected. Further, the franchisees that operate the bulk of fast-food locations are often not required to provide sick leave.

Some workers are simply not convinced their work is essential

starbucks coronavirus

Chairs are stacked in a Starbucks coffee shop that remained open for customers purchasing for take-away.

AP Photo/John Minchillo

Despite financial struggles, some workers are choosing to take time off and hope that the government decides to support them as they attempt to avoid infection. 

Mark, who works at McDonald’s and serves as a caregiver for his 88-year-old mother, said he decided to take unpaid time off last Friday, after dealing with customers coughing and licking their fingers to separate bills.

“As a customer, I would not feel safe patronizing any fast-food establishment at this point,” he said. “Not safe for the workers and not safe for the employees.”

Even workers who are less worried about getting sick said that they are worried about surviving financially with fewer hours, as many chains cut back due to having fewer customers and more limited service.

More than 23,000 people have signed a petition calling for Starbucks to suspend business until further notice to promote social distancing while continuing to pay employees. While Starbucks has rolled out new sick leave policies, as well as mental health benefits, some workers feel that keeping stores open is detrimental to preventing the spread of the coronavirus and employees’ health. 

“It has made a lot of other employees upset when customers say ‘thank you for being open’ or ‘I don’t know what I’d do without my coffee’, rather than recognizing that we’re putting our health in danger by coming into contact with so many people, and they should stop insisting that their favorite Starbucks beverage is essential,” said one Starbucks worker.

“I LOVE a Portillo’s cake shake, but I know that I don’t need one right now if it means everyone else can stay safe,” she added. 

Additional reporting by Eliza Relman. 


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