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McDonald’s Is Latest Mega Chain to Tease Reopening Strategy

“Operational trials” behind closed doors still require staff to carry them out

McDonald’s UK signage against a blue sky background, as the burger chain considers reopening its restaurants
McDonald’s joins other fast food giants in plotting a reopening strategy
Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

International fast-food giant McDonald’s says it is running restaurant reopening trials in the U.K., as the global burger juggernaut joins other large chains in tentatively plotting an early route out of coronavirus lockdown. Its U.K. restaurants have been completely closed since late March.

In a statement first reported by City AM, McDonald’s UK and Ireland chief executive Paul Pomroy said the company is conducting “operational trials” to see what “reopening might look like” across its 1300 restaurants, 1100 of which are franchises. The trials include social distancing rules for staff, the type and volume of personal protective equipment (PPE) required to operate safely, and the extent to which menus, service models, and delivery options may or may not be limited.

The chain, which employs over 120,000 people in the U.K., is following KFC, Burger King, Pret a Manger and bakery Greggs in announcing reopening proposals, but is notable for emphasising that, for now, nothing is going to change, and workers will remain on furlough. As much as a message to eager diners, this is a public nod to potentially anxious investors that cogs are turning inside the organisation.

McDonald’s and its fellow large-scale fast-food chains have been under constant pressure from the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) since the furlough scheme was announced, as 80 percent of a worker’s salary will, in many cases push earnings below the national minimum wage. A significant proportion of its workers remain on zero-hours contracts, whose “flexibility” frequently leads to inconsistent patterns of work. This, under a coronavirus job retention scheme based on prior earnings, can cause huge disparities between workers on legally identical, already low-paid contracts: 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.

Its franchise model also poses a problem, as while the company has ultimate oversight on its franchisees, these are often not individuals but powerful, high-earning businesses of their own, drawn to operate one or multiple McDonald’s outlets by the promise of functional autonomy over how those restaurants are run. A senior McDonald’s crew member told Eater London last month that “franchisees have full autonomy with regards to pay,” with 40 percent of the workforce on zero-hours contracts.

The BFAWU has since submitted ten questions to Pomroy, seeking clarity on both safety measures and the thinking behind the reopening after the company sent a similar memo to its staff, before going public:

Pomroy’s initial public statement appears to reflect on the company’s responsibility to workers at least in part: He says that the McDonald’s’s criteria for opening are “first and foremost ensuring the wellbeing of our people and creating the right environment for them to return to work.” Food supply and customer safety come next, with Pomroy adding that McDonald’s needs to “ensure enough supply of fresh produce; and finally [work] in-step with government guidelines to ensure the safety of our customers.”

But much in the same way restaurant sustainability too often focuses myopically on food waste over people, a holistic conception of restaurant safety during COVID-19 would go beyond two-metre markings and limits on customers coming in and out: it would include workers paid enough to live at minimal risk outside of work, and with the security to not come to work when necessary.

McDonald’s and its fellow restaurants have this to aim for; its scale offers an opportunity to set an example for others to follow.