COVID-19: McDonald's Queen St branch encouraged staff not to call in sick days before Auckland entered lockdown

A former worker at a central Auckland McDonald's restaurant has accused the branch's management of potentially endangering its employees after a sign was put up discouraging staff from calling in sick amid the pandemic.

The staffer, who Newshub has decided not to identify, says the management of the Queen St branch actively encouraged its employees not to call in sick due to staffing shortages - despite the risk of COVID-19. A photo supplied to Newshub shows a printed sign underlined with highlighter pinned to a staffing area, reading: "Please look after yourself and your health as weather is changing. Let's not make each other work extra by calling in sick to work. Look after yourself, look after your team."

Since the beginning of the pandemic last year, public health officials have promoted a series of basic measures to help protect New Zealanders against the virus and prevent further transmission, a key message being that New Zealanders should stay at home if they are sick - particularly if they are presenting symptoms consistent with COVID-19. 

COVID-19: McDonald's Queen St branch encouraged staff not to call in sick days before Auckland entered lockdown
Photo credit: Supplied

Several of the more common symptoms of the virus are similar to the flu, such as a fever, cough, fatigue, headache, aches and pains, sore throat or loss of smell, meaning COVID-19 can sometimes be mistaken for a common illness. Some people who contract the virus may also be asymptomatic, meaning they don't present symptoms at all. Therefore it's crucial that anyone who has potentially been exposed to the virus, or those who are experiencing flu-like symptoms, stay at home, get tested for COVID-19 and isolate from others until a negative result is returned. 

Speaking to Newshub, the former staffer claimed the management of the Queen St branch decided to forgo the public health measures due to staffing shortages. The manager was allegedly dismissive of the possible risks as at the time - mid-August - New Zealand had not had a case of COVID-19 in the community for more than 160 days.

The former staffer claimed that when they confronted their manager about the sign, the manager expressed concern that winter ills and chills would force other staff members to take on additional shifts and put pressure on management to organise cover. 

The source said they argued that COVID-19 could still be in the community and employees were still at risk of contracting the virus. They told the manager they had reported the sign to their union.

A second photo supplied to Newshub shows the worker contacted their union about the sign on August 13, 2021 - four days later on August 17, New Zealand was plunged into lockdown after an Aucklander tested positive for COVID-19, the first community case in 169 days.

As of Tuesday, October 19, the outbreak now stands at 2099 cases - 2030 of whom are Aucklanders. Tuesday's 94 new cases also marks New Zealand's largest daily case total since the beginning of the pandemic.

COVID-19: McDonald's Queen St branch encouraged staff not to call in sick days before Auckland entered lockdown
Photo credit: Supplied

Ten days after the staffer's confrontation with the manager, McDonald's Queen St was identified as a location of interest after a COVID-positive customer visited the fast-food restaurant on August 10.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health confirmed to Newshub that McDonald's Queen St was listed as a location of interest on Monday, August 23 after it was linked to an exposure event on Tuesday, August 10 - a week before Auckland entered lockdown.

The former staffer said they left the company shortly after the confrontation.

"They don't care about their workers," they told Newshub. "I resigned that day I took that photo."

McDonald's New Zealand head of communications, Simon Kenny, confirmed to Newshub that senior management are aware of the sign and admit it was "poorly worded". He said after they were made aware of the poster, it was taken down immediately.

"The health and safety of our staff and customers has been our priority throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Official Government guidance and supporting official McDonald's communications are shared with staff, including in restaurants and online," he said.

"When we became aware of a poster, which was poorly worded and could cause some confusion, we alerted the franchisee, and it was removed immediately."

However, Kenny disputed that the former worker had confronted their manager about the sign, arguing that no members of staff had raised any concerns and the poster had been shared on social media "out of context".

"The franchisee has talked with the manager, and we'd encourage any staff to flag concerns directly with their manager or franchisee, so issues like this can be resolved quickly and official policy clarified."

Gary Cranston, Unite Union's fast food organiser and lead organiser for McDonald's, confirmed the union had received a report of the sign encouraging staff not to call in sick, calling the poster "quite concerning".

He confirmed the former staffer was a union delegate at the Queen St branch and a member of Unite Union's McDonald's Workers Council and said as far as he is aware, they had attempted to raise their concerns with the restaurant's manager.

"Our collective agreement states that 'the parties, wherever possible, agree to try to resolve problems at the restaurant level. Union representatives shall try to resolve the problem directly with the employer'. So we went with that approach," Cranston said.

He added that a number of McDonald's workers have recently expressed concerns about COVID-19 health and safety protocols "not being taken seriously" by McDonald's management. However, he said he has not received any other COVID-related complaints from staffers at the Queen St branch.

"I'm not aware of any other instances of a sign like this being put up in a restaurant anywhere in the country. It looks like a one-off incident to me," he said.

Cranston says it is "absolutely inappropriate" for staffers to feel like they cannot call in sick to work, particularly during a pandemic. 

Stu Lumsden, the national manager of the Labour Inspectorate at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, told Newshub it has not received any complaints regarding McDonald's and this specific situation.

"Workers who are genuinely sick are entitled to utilise their sick leave. If the business is finding that this is impacting on their business there are various financial support schemes available – see website," Lumsden said.

"Employees or employers who are unable to resolve workplace issues themselves through discussion, are able to contact MBIE for assistance."

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health reiterated that New Zealnders should not be going to work if they are unwell "at any time - but especially when COVID-19 is in the community".

"It is absolutely critical that anyone with any cold or flu symptoms, gets tested for COVID-19 and self-isolates at home until they receive a negative test result," the spokesperson told Newshub.

The Ministry of Health urges essential workers to be particularly vigilant under alert level 3 restrictions.

"Because permitted workers have an increased amount of movement and contact with others, it is crucial they do not go to work and that they do get tested if they experience any symptoms that could be COVID-19," they said. "A high rate of testing ensures we detect every case of COVID-19 that might be in the community and slow onwards transmission of the virus."

In August, Mel and Mat Tolhurst officially became the news owners of Queen St McDonald's following an investigation into the previous franchisee Prakash Hira, who had illegally required staff to sign up to bonded labour.

Hira Corporation operated four McDonald's stores in prime central Auckland locations - Quay St, Britomart, Queen St and Pt Chevalier.

McDonald's was notified of Hira's conduct after inquiries by Newsroom found workers were receiving "commitment to employment" letters requiring them to pay a $3000 bond to cover hiring, onboarding, training and administrative costs if they left within 12 months of starting.