Bartolomé Perez has made countless vats of fries and flipped more burgers than he cares to remember in his 30 years of working at a McDonald's in Los Angeles.
In that time, he's joined several strikes to demand higher wages and better benefits for workers. But the stakes felt very different during the coronavirus pandemic.
"We are between life and death," Perez says, speaking in Spanish. "You know that every time you go out, it could be your last ... it could be the most expensive hamburger you make in your life."
Perez helped stage a walkout at his restaurant in April after a coworker tested positive for COVID-19. It was part of a big wave of protests by low-wage workers in retail, food and delivery.
Protesting workers were demanding more access to protections against the virus, like masks and disinfectant. That's in addition to other demands they raised long before the pandemic, like higher pay, more predictable schedules, better health care and other benefits.
McDonald's has said the health and safety of its workers was of "utmost importance" and told NPR that Perez's location had been closed for a "thorough deep cleaning" and had "ample supply of gloves, masks and soap." It said the protests "do not represent the feedback we are hearing from the majority of employees across the country."
Perez says, "We have always been essential. It's just that the company strategizes a narrative about us workers, saying that all we do is flip burgers, that we are replaceable."
Editor's note: McDonald's is among NPR's financial supporters.