Danger in the kitchen
Jorge Velazquez said he can spot the cooks and dishwashers sitting in his clinic waiting room. The burns and cuts on the hands, the hunched posture, and weary eyes are evidence of years working in restaurant kitchens.
It’s cash only at Santa Adelina, the strip mall medical clinic in Azusa in eastern Los Angeles County, where Velazquez, a physician’s assistant, treats walk-ins who are overwhelmingly low-wage workers, most of them back-of-house kitchen staff.
Through a series of interviews, a survey and review of government records, KCRW has learned that oversight, prevention and treatment of on-the-job injuries in California’s restaurants are all lacking.
While most injured workers showing up at his clinic can be treated onsite, Velazquez said some need to go to a hospital, but they won’t for fear of extra costs and time off of work.
“It’s the only job they have and they have to protect it,” said Velazquez. “So I try to do what I can.”
Velazquez said restaurants often send their employees to cash-only clinics like Santa Adelina because they don’t have workers’ compensation insurance or want to avoid higher insurance premiums. According to Velazquez, some of his patients won’t disclose the details of how they got injured to protect their bosses, or out of fear of losing their jobs.
“They don’t actually tell me, ‘I’m not supposed to report it,’” he said. “They say, ‘I got hurt at work. How much is it going to be?’”
These workers’ employers range from mom-and-pop establishments to major chains, according to Velazquez, who speculates that they send injured workers to his clinic to save money.
“Maybe the owners are unaware, maybe it’s just the managers that’s doing it, but, yeah, it’s everywhere,” he said.
All California businesses, regardless of size, are required by law to carry workers’ compensation insurance. Even so, nearly half of the citations issued in 2013-14 to employers by the state Labor Commissioner’s Bureau of Field Enforcement were for failure to provide workers’ compensation coverage.
Some workers also receive underground medical treatment, Velazquez continued. He’s had patients come in with unlabeled medications they received from people who claim to be doctors trained or licensed in other countries. The so-called doctors make house calls late at night; typically the only time the workers are available. Velazquez said he is concerned at the practice, but acknowledged many low-wage workers see this as their only option.
Injured on the job
At a recent meeting in Azusa, several workers several showed off their appointment cards for clinics like Santa Adelina. Three men lifted their pant legs to reveal varicose veins bulging from their calf muscles, a consequence of decades of standing for 10 or 12-hour days.
Some of the workers said they can no longer work in the kitchens because it’s too painful to stand for even 10 minutes.
Armando Santiago, a former cook, was one of three men who showed cellphone photos taken of bloodied hands and fingers sometimes cut through the nail.
“I’ve been cut many times,” Santiago said. “Around here you can see how deep the knife went” he added as he flipped through his gruesome photo gallery. One picture showed a bloody thumb in the foreground and a restaurant kitchen and a food-prep counter in the background. Another one shows a bloody finger.
A few times he came close to cutting his fingernail off while chopping meat. His blood would get into the food, he said.
“I kept working like that. I didn’t have any bandages, just kept working,” Santiago said, adding that his boss “wanted me to keep working. He didn’t care.”
The one time he was sent to a doctor for treatment, Santiago said his boss asked him to first change out of his uniform and into street clothes. Santiago said he was later fired after experiencing a severe allergic reaction to ingredients used in the kitchen.
Another worker at the meeting, who did not want to his name published for fear of retaliation, said he also suffered a severe cut in the kitchen and was told by his boss that he should say the injury happened at home.
None of the workers remembered seeing a first-aid kit in their restaurants, and one said he had to pay for his own Band-Aids, which he would share with the others. If the Band-Aids ran out, they would wrap the wound in a cloth and keep working.
A 2011 survey of workers by the Restaurant Opportunities Center found dangerous working conditions pervasive within some Los Angeles restaurants. According to the findings:
- 40% performed a job they were not trained for
- 42% experienced cuts
- 43% experienced burns
- 58% reported working while sick
Three out of four workers surveyed reported working in understaffed kitchens, a potential contributor to workplace injuries.
Burns, no bathroom breaks
Norma Reyes spends most of her time sitting after spending 20 years standing in the kitchen. She experienced a significant knee injury as a cook at a Mexican-food restaurant and is no longer able to work. Until recently, she paid out of pocket for treatment but can no longer afford the $260 monthly bill.
Reyes and her co-worker, Rosa Maria Alonso Chavez, worked side by side as cooks for decades. Both women suffered for years from urinary tract infections after being discouraged from using the bathroom while at work.
“They’d get mad at us every time we asked to use the bathroom,” Reyes said. “They’d say, ‘You need to go again?’”
Chavez suffered burns after spilling hot oil on her hand and chest while cooking food. Instead of taking her to a doctor, she said her employer treated the burns with water. Her son later drove her to the hospital and she was out of work for two weeks.
“The owner was upset because I’d gone to the doctor,” Chavez recalled.
“I was screaming from that horrible pain”
Down a driveway in Baldwin Park, 49-year-old Alex Sanchez shuffles around the kitchen of his sister’s home. He’s been living there since he became disabled in 2009.
He remembers the day he got injured: Valentine’s Day. He says he was the cook out of four who showed up to work that day at a fast food joint in Glendora, in eastern Los Angeles County. While covering for the other three, he picked up a heavy container of hot oil and heard his back snap. He dropped the oil, which splattered on his body, and then he collapsed to the floor.
“If I took a breath, it would hurt me so much I would scream. I was screaming from that horrible pain,” he said.
Sanchez was taken by ambulance to a hospital where he stayed for five days. He suffered a dislodged disc and has been in constant pain since. Walking isn’t easy and standing takes effort. Doctors want to operate on his back but Sanchez said he is terrified he might become paralyzed. He briefly got addicted to his pain medications and now is undergoing electroshock therapy for his depression.
Sanchez said he was never interviewed by inspectors with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, also known as Cal/OSHA, and had never heard of the agency. Indeed, none of the workers KCRW spoke to had had contact with the agency.
“You ask about Cal/OSHA and they look at me like, ‘What the hell is that?’” said Carlos Bowker, a former investigator with the state Labor Commissioner’s Office who now counsels restaurant workers on their rights. “Workers are not educated, or employers suppress their right to ask questions.”
Cal/OSHA has no record of Sanchez’s accident being reported. California law requires businesses to report any accidents that result in a serious injury that require the employee to be hospitalized for more than 24 hours for other than medical observation.
Cal/OSHA’s records from 2010 through May 2016 show there were 564 inspections of fast food or carry-out restaurants and none of dine-in establishments. Statewide there are about 70,000 eating and dining establishments and 1.3 million restaurant workers.
The lack of oversight could be a consequence of too few resources at the state agency, which is charged with protecting worker health and safety for California’s workforce. It has roughly one field inspector for every 82,000 people, according to the most recent data.
Former inspector Garrett Brown, a 20-year veteran with Cal/OSHA, said despite the fact that workers are exposed to machinery, slip-and-falls, and repetitive motion, the restaurant industry is not considered a highly hazardous work environment.
“There are more dangerous industries and more vulnerable workforces facing worse conditions that I would personally say are better targets for the use of (Cal/OSHA) resources,” said Brown.
Sanchez was eventually treated by a succession of doctors and received a workers’ compensation payout of $800 a month. He also says his employer stiffed him on overtime for years, but he didn’t file a wage claim and now it’s too late.
“I was trying to pay for my house, and I was behind on payments and eventually lost it,” he said. He moved in with family members, and spends his days making small wooden cars. It takes three weeks to craft one.
“I give them to my doctors because they’re so nice,” Sanchez said. “And I don’t have nothing to give them.”