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Coronavirus Is Closing Down Huge Chains. What Happens to the Workers?

Nando’s, McDonald’s, Costa, and Pret a Manger are all closing in response to novel coronavirus

McDonald’s closes over coronavirus Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images

Over the weekend of 21-22 March, one McDonald’s staff member — who wished to remain anonymous — served what would be their last customers for some time. “Some were actively hostile, making a point to grab people’s hands when passing food out the drive-thru or coughing on them.”

That was before the global fast-food giant announced it would shut all 1,270 of its U.K. restaurants, as of Monday 23 March at 7 p.m. This past weekend, Nandos shut down its 400-plus restaurants; Pret a Manger closed its 400 cafes; and Costa shut down its 2000-plus cafes too. These restaurants will not do takeout or delivery: They are closed, if temporarily. Following government-enforced closure of restaurants and cafes on Friday evening, novel coronavirus’ impact on the U.K. restaurant industry is only beginning to show its hand.

Those numbers might seem big, a new order of magnitude to reckon with as the crisis closes down London’s independent restaurants and small chains. Consider these numbers: 135,000; 18,000; 8,000; 19,000. That’s how many McDonald’s, Nandos, Pret a Manger, and Costa staff went out of work, over one weekend.

Each company has said they will put payment measures in place — McDonald’s will offer full pay until 5 April; Nandos full pay for two weeks; Pret a Manger full pay until end of April; Costa for eight weeks. This will give way to chancellor Rishi Sunak’s latest financial package, which guarantees 80 percent of payroll will be made available to employers, for staff taxed via Pay as You Earn (PAYE) as of 28 February 2020.

This is where workers are concerned. McDonald’s’ pay statement accounts for “directly employed” staff: those working at company-owned restaurants. It will also take into account an average pay from the last 12 weeks, meaning staff who have been off sick, on holiday, or “taking advantage” of “flexible” (zero hours) contracts may lose out.

Only 18 percent of McDonald’s restaurants are company-owned; the rest are franchised, which, the crew member who witnessed customers coughing on staff, told Eater, means “franchisees have full autonomy with regards to pay.” They say 60 percent of the crew at their restaurant are on “guaranteed hours” contracts of eight, 16, or 30 hours; the other 40 percent are on zero hours contracts, which are not (yet) clearly covered in Sunak’s plans. Measures for those on zero-hours contracts and the self-employed are expected to be announced by 27 March.

This presents a threefold problem: McDonald’s has yet to communicate its pay policy to franchisees, who have yet to communicate to their staff; workers on already precarious, “flexible” contracts are not secure; 80 percent of an eight-hour-per-week contract on an average “retail sales associate” wage of £7.18 per hour is £199.12 a month, with rents and bills currently not being reduced or frozen by the government. Health secretary Matt Hancock recently admitted himself that he could not live on the statutory sick pay of £94.25 per week. The mathematics of the measures, based on an average of earnings rather than being fixed at an independent baseline, make precarity reproduce precarity. The crew member said that those staff, at least at their store, are often students or younger people living at home; those on 30 hours are the ones with second jobs.

A union spokesperson for McStrike, the group from The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union that campaigns for £15/hour minimum salaries and increased employee protections, said that “workers are concerned about how they’ll get by on 80 percent of what was already a poverty wage. They already struggle to pay the bills each month and think that McDonald’s can afford to top up the government’s 80 percent to ensure workers don’t struggle.” Melissa Evans, who works at the Wandsworth Town McDonald’s, added that “we are still having to pay 100 percent of rent and 100 percent of bills, so McDonald’s needs to pay us 100 percent of wages. They need to reassure staff who’ve been off sick or worked less than normal over the last 12 weeks.”

The crew member who spoke to Eater is sure, however, that “McDonald’s would absolutely have the power to overrule [franchisees]” not complying with any company policy. McDonald’s has since told Eater that “We are working closely with our franchisees during this challenging time and have shared our company guidance on pay for those employees who need to self-isolate or who contract coronavirus.” It has still not shared details of its guidance for claiming the available salary grants for furloughed employees.

This stratified communication between levels of restaurant management is also an issue at Costa: While the chain says its staff will receive “their full average weekly pay” for the next eight weeks, it has not clarified how that average is taken, with franchisees exercising autonomy over pay, tips, and sick leave at their cafes. This has dunked the company in hot water before, with workers across 29 stores saying they were “not treated like humans,” and a separate case seeing staff have training costs deducted from their pay. Sandwich chain Pret — which proudly says “no zero-hours contracts here” — has clarified that its eight weeks of pay will be based on “100 percent of their normal hours and pay, reversing our previously proposed reduction in hours” which had drawn criticism.

Nandos has offered similar clarification: “We are now shifting our entire focus onto how we can best support all 18,000 of our team over the coming months. We have contacted all our team members to reassure them that they will be paid their full contracted hours for the next two weeks. We will provide another update later this week about a longer term package to support them further.”

Kyle Gillespie, who works at Nando’s Falkirk, told Eater that that support has been entirely forthcoming: “I am happy with the way they handled it and so were my colleges. Every bit of advice from the government was enforced as much as possible in the restaurant. There was only a little bit of talk about why we hadn’t closed but that was in the days leading up to us closing anyway, so I’m sure there are many who are happy to not be facing multiple customers day in and day out during this health crisis, I think it was the right thing to do.”

He added that during the period between the government “advising” the public to avoid restaurants and enforcing their closure, while “there were a few of us who were questioning why we were still open,” the practices and level of business meant that he was comfortable continuing to work there at the time.

Throughout the novel coronavirus crisis, a theme has recurred: protect the independents, protect the small restaurants, protect the ones that won’t be around after this is over (whatever “over”, in its many shades, might look like). This remains noble, but must be counterbalanced: McDonald’s, Nandos, Pret a Manger, and Costa will be here when this is over, with the former and latter having built monumental growth on franchising; on offering self-determination and apparent flexibility in a trade for low wages. Now more than ever, they must match that with oversight: demonstrating a corporate and moral responsibility to bring their hundreds of thousands of staff with them, in a way that means they’ll still be here, safely and securely, too.

As Gillespie said of his experience with Nandos: “There was nobody left wondering what was going to happen, and we were updated as soon as any managers knew what was happening. The way it was dealt with made life that little bit less stressful but it makes me feel for staff who haven’t been treated in the same way.”

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