Nearly 100 people gathered Wednesday outside the Burger King where 16-year-old Niesha Harris-Brazell was killed to demand safer working conditions in the fast-food industry.
Cooks and cashiers just like Harris-Brazell joined various elected officials and organizers of Fight for 15, a national campaign advocating for a $15 minimum wage, to demand more safety precautions for those in the industry.
“Our community can’t be a community with violence in the workplace,” said state Rep. David Bowen, a Democrat from Milwaukee.
Harris-Brazell was shot and killed Jan. 2 during a robbery at the Burger King, 5120 W. Capitol Drive. It’s unclear exactly how Harris-Brazell came to be shot, but it appears she may have been struck by gunfire either from the suspect or a coworker who opened fire with a gun he was barred from possessing.
“We shouldn’t be standing here today for a 16-year-old who was hurt in the workplace,” said County Board Supervisor Sequanna Taylor.
Organizers of Wednesday’s rally pointed to news coverage of three other similar incidents of fatal violence across the nation in the week since Harris-Brazell’s death. Fast-food employees were reported shot and killed in incidents in Ohio, California and New York between Jan. 6 and 10.
Erica Hunt, a Milwaukee resident who has been working in the food industry for 15 years, recalled a time when she was 16 and working her first job at a fast-food restaurant when it was robbed at gunpoint. She said managerial staff forced her to work the rest of her shift after speaking with police.
“I know how ugly workplace violence can get,” she said, noting that sexual harassment, physical abuse and mental abuse can be common and there’s a constant threat of being fired. On top of that, the pay is low.
“The fact that 16-year-old people are forced to work for low wages, risk their lives … should not happen in the richest nation in the world,” said Natalia Fajardo, an organizer for the Wisconsin Poor People’s Campaign.
A 2021 study by Fast Food Justice Ahora, which advocates for better fast-food working conditions, looked at almost 650 fast-food restaurants across California and found that each one experienced an average of 30 violent or threatening incidents a year from 2017 through 2020.
About 13% of those incidents involved physical or sexual assault, the study found. Other incidents included drug and gang activity, threats, prowling and stalking.
Fast-food restaurants are vulnerable to such incidents because they are often open late, if not 24 hours a day; usually provide convenient access to thoroughfares and dark alleys for getaway; have cash on site; and often have inexperienced staff, according to the study.