Dive Brief:

  • A former butcher for In-N-Out Burger has sued the popular fast food chain, claiming that he was disciplined for taking approved time off work and that the company retaliated against workers when they complained about inadequate COVID-19 protections (Becerra v. In-N-Out Burger, No. 21STCV17045 (Superior Court for the State of California, County of Los Angeles, May 6, 2021)).
  • The plaintiff says, among other things, that he and other employees worked in unsafe and unhealthy working conditions and did not feel safe at work due to inadequate health and safety protocols, including a lack of social distancing. He also said employees were not required to wear protective gear such as face masks at work, despite several employees exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms and being in contact with individuals known to have COVID-19. The plaintiff says he was wrongfully terminated after five years with the company.
  • The company has denied the allegations. “At In-N-Out Burger, we have always cared for our Associates as if they are our own family and we are disappointed with the baseless and false claims that Mr. Becerra has made in his lawsuit. Due to the fact that this matter involves ongoing litigation, we will unfortunately not be able to comment any further,” Arnie Wensinger, chief legal and business officer, said in a statement emailed to HR Dive.

Dive Insight:

Employers scrambled to adjust their safety policies after the pandemic hit the United States last year, using guidance from government resources, particularly the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By April 8, the agency had issued safety guidance for essential workers exposed to a potential COVID-19 case, including those in the food industry. It recommended protocols like mask wearing and social distancing, in addition to other precautions. 

While the plaintiff’s complaints partly concern events from very early in the pandemic (beginning in February 2020), they also center on a retaliation case related in part to reporting unsafe conditions, an issue the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began closely eyeing in April. The issue had already become common by then, with doctors, a nurse, an Amazon warehouse worker, grocery store cashiers and flight attendants among those who said they risked their job or were fired for lodging a complaint about a lack of COVID-19 safety protocols.  

Retaliation remains a top labor complaint overall, making up 55% of all claims filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2020. Sources have previously told HR Dive that companies would do well to embrace their whistleblowers as a means of improving company culture. 

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