“It’s hot back there.”

Workers protest conditions at local McDonald’s

Story and photos by Robin Elisabeth Kilmer

No AC, no peace.

Keeping hamburgers and fries hot was not an issue at the McDonald’s at 4259 Broadway on West 181st Street late last week.

But keeping workers cool was.

As temperatures in the city soared last week during a blistering heat wave that the New York City medical examiner’s office said claimed four lives, the popular fast food restaurant was at the center of a protest over working conditions denounced as unsafe.

A worker fainted and was tended to by emergency personnel. Photo: Greg Basta (GBNYChange) on Twitter
A worker fainted and was tended to by emergency personnel.
Photo: Greg Basta (GBNYChange) on Twitter

According to a restaurant supervisor on the premises on Fri., Jul. 19th, the air conditioner broke down at around 5 p.m. the day before, on Thurs., Jul. 18th.

But the air conditioner was still not working on Friday when workers came in for their work shifts.

The supervisor said that in light of the air conditioner being broken, workers were free to take frequent breaks, and that additional staff was brought on to relieve workers. He also said workers were offered a choice to leave without losing pay.

But despite such measures, worker Shelyz Méndez, 20, fainted and was taken to the hospital at around 10:30 a.m. in the morning.

Méndez’s heat stroke was the final straw for five workers who stormed out at around noon on Friday and protested outside the restaurant.

“No AC, no peace,” chanted the uniformed workers, while holding up brightly colored signs in English and Spanish.

The protest grew as workers were joined by local elected officials, including State Senator Adriano Espaillat, Councilmember Ydanis Rodríguez, and District Leader Mark Levine. They attempted to deliver a letter condemning the conditions, but the owner departed.

Councilmember Ydanis Rodríguez (left) and State Senator Adriano Espaillat spoke to the manager. Photo: Office of Councilmember Rodríguez
Councilmember Ydanis Rodríguez (left) and State Senator Adriano Espaillat spoke to the manager.
Photo: Office of Councilmember Rodríguez

“He just brushed past us,” said Russell Murphy, a spokesperson for Councilmember Rodriguez, of the owner.

The letter was delivered to Mike Ortiz, the manager on duty, instead.

Greg Basta, Deputy Director for New York Communities for Change, a coalition of working families in low and moderate income communities fighting for social and economic justice, Tweeted photos of the encounter between the elected officials and Ortiz, as well as a photo of Méndez being wheeled out of the restaurant while onlookers gaped.

The air conditioner began working again in the late afternoon. he McDonald’s supervisor explained that portable air conditioners were also purchased in the event that the malfunctioning unit broke down again, and that the protesting workers were welcome to come back to work.

Patrons sat hunched over their burgers and fries, oblivious to the scene that had unfolded only a few hours ago.

Joiry Mena, 20, eats at the same McDonald’s every day. He had not been aware of the earlier protest but was indignant when told.

“That’s bad. I won’t come here if that happens again,” he said.

Mena already had Plan B for his fast food regimen.

“I’ll go to Burger King instead.”

By Mon., Jul. 22nd, two of the five workers who went on strike were confirmed as back to work. The other three did not have their shift assignments yet.

None of the striking workers were fired.

Still, despite claims by a manager that all air conditioners in the establishment were functioning, it was noticeably warmer near the kitchen, and a giant fan was placed behind the counter to keep workers cool.

One worker, who did not want to give her name, claimed the air conditioning in the kitchen and the cellar did not work.

“It’s hot back there,” she said.

Councilmember Rodríguez has promised to follow up.

He re-issued a letter on Tues., July. 23rd addressed to Brooks Collins, whom the Councilmember identified as the owner/manager, and called for a meeting to discuss the workplace grievance.

“If you want to operate a business in the Northern Manhattan community, especially a multi-billion dollar chain restaurant, you need to treat your employees with respect and adhere to their rights in the work place,” he wrote. “To leave employees liable to becoming sick and fainting amounts to mistreatment of workers, something that the Northern Manhattan community will not stand for.”

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