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San Jose fast-food workers put the heat on Taco Bell, striking over working conditions

San Jose Taco Bell employees strike over unsafe working conditions
San Jose Taco Bell employees strike over unsafe working conditions 03:17

Taco Bell workers in San Jose went on a one-day strike Wednesday, alleging the fast-food restaurant of providing unsafe working conditions and cutting workers' hours.

Workers at the Taco Bell location near the corner of S. King Rd. and Tully Rd. claim kitchen temperatures rise to nearly 90 degrees, alleging the company has failed to repair the restaurant's air conditioner. They also complain of gas leaks in the kitchen.

Workers also accuse Taco Bell of reducing employee hours while simultaneously hiring new workers. The location, which is a joint Taco Bell and KFC, closed its front doors during an afternoon picket, but the drive-thru stayed open.

In response to the allegations, a Taco Bell corporate spokesperson issued a statement that said, "The safety and well-being of team members is our top priority at Taco Bell. The franchise owner and operator of this location is currently looking into and working to address any team member concerns."

The concerns come about a week before a board meeting by California's Department of Industrial Relations, where members are scheduled to vote on a proposed safety order related to heat illness prevention in indoor workplaces.  

The proposed standard would require indoor workplaces to be cooled below 87 degrees when workers are present. In places where workers wear protective clothing or are exposed to radiant heat (like stoves), temperatures would have to be below 82 degrees.   

The new rules would also extend to schools, where teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers, and other employees may work without air conditioning.  

A similar proposal was set for a vote in March, but was cancelled by the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board.

"We've had a lot of discussions with the governor's office since then," Lorena Gonzalez, the principal officer of the California Labor Federation, said. "We have been ensured that we will have a heat standard by this summer."

"The code is pretty detailed and it explains what kinds of mitigations an employer's supposed to take," said Robert Ovetz, a senior lecturer at San Jose State University. He noted that Wednesday's strike was within the rights of Taco Bell workers, regardless of being represented by a union.

"Labor law allows workers to take action around issues of unsafe workplaces, even when they don't have a union contract. Often union contracts include some sort of safety/hazard clause that triggers some sort of negotiations between the employer and union. But workers that don't have a union -- and these workers don't have a union -- they are allowed to take action immediately when their workplace is unsafe," Ovetz said. "Often, if you forgo taking action and you go to state regulators, that can take weeks or even months before an inspector is brought in. By then, workers have already been harmed. So in labor law, workers do have that right to take action. And it's actually protected. They can't be fired or disciplined for any reason if they engage in an unfair labor practice strike."

The Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board is set to vote on the proposal on June 20.

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