CA fast-food workers push for pay, new regulatory agency

S4ri Kum

Over 16 years working at a McDonald’s in Los Angeles, Angelica Hernandez dealt with on-the-job experiences that left her feeling “humiliated and mistreated.”

She has been forced to skip breaks, unknowingly worked off the clock and faced sexual harassment from a manager. And at the start of the pandemic, her employer failed to provide personal protective equipment like masks and gloves.

Hernandez, a mother of three, said she takes two buses to get to work and earns just over minimum wage.

“Why do I do it? I do it because I need the money,” Hernandez said in Spanish. “I need to see my check to pay my bills.”

Motivated by those experiences, Hernandez now is part of a labor-backed movement pushing for a law that would create a fast food council responsible for setting wages, working hours and other health and safety standards for the entire industry. The measure, Assembly Bill 257, passed the Assembly in January, and now faces another key vote Thursday at the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Under the legislation, national companies would be jointly held liable for labor law violations of their franchisees. It would apply to any fast food chain with at least 30 locations nationwide.

The council would be unique in America’s fast-food industry and restaurant owners are fighting the bill, saying the potential regulations could set back employers and customers. Opponents argue the legislation would grant the council too much power in a state that already has some of the strongest worker protection laws in the country.

“AB 257 would do nothing but harm California restaurants and the patrons who frequent them,” the California Restaurant Association said in a statement. “Union leaders continue to push a false narrative of widespread labor and wage violations in order to pass a law that will raise prices for millions of working Californians.”

If approved, the legislation would be another win for labor groups like the Service Employees International Union, which led the campaign in 2016 to push the state to raise its minimum wage to $15.

SEIU has worked for years toward representing workers in the fast food industry, a notably difficult field to unionize. Only 3% of fast food and counter workers belong to unions nationwide, according to the website, which is managed by a pair of economics professors.

Other California service jobs pay better

The bill’s supporters say they are trying to empower lower-income workers who often are people of color. California’s fast-food workforce is more than 60% Latino, according to a 2021 report by researchers at UCLA and UC Berkeley. The same study found nearly seven in 10 workers were women.

The bill “creates a mechanism to raise overall standards and protections in the fast food industry through input from workers and employers, and will stand to benefit Black, Latino, and immigrant workers who do much of this work,” said Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo D-Los Angeles, who is a joint author of the bill.

The Shift Project, a joint project at the Harvard Kennedy School and University of California San Francisco, released a report Monday comparing job quality for California fast food workers with other hourly service sector workers. The report used data surveyed from 2,034 service workers between the spring of 2021 and 2022.

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The report documented that fast food workers earn less than their counterparts in the service industry. While the average hourly wage for these workers was $16.21, non-fast food service sector workers made about $19.15. The report also found workers were more likely to have schedules assigned on short notice and to experience shift cancellations.

“The large private-sector and highly profitable firms that employ these workers have failed to provide jobs that offer more than poverty-level wages and hours and unstable schedules that undermine the rhythms of family life,” the report said.

Restaurants say fast-food is well-regulated

The bill faces resistance from fast-food companies, groups and franchisee owners, who say it would hurt the industry.

Among those in opposition include the California Restaurant Association and the International Franchise Association. They note that the state already has strict worker protections, and establishing a commission with this power is an overstep.

“The higher costs created by this bill mean less opportunity for entrepreneurs and employees alike, through fewer store openings, fewer jobs and reduced hours,” said the California Restaurant Association.

Other employer groups contend California’s current workplace regulations already protect fast-food employees.

The Employment Policies Institute released a study Tuesday analyzing nearly a decade of California Department of Industrial Relations labor law violations. The data showed fewer wage claims in fast food restaurants compared to other industries. Between 2017 and 2022, limited-service restaurants accounted for 1.5% of all lawsuits in all industries where awards were granted to employees.

“The rhetoric supporting the (bill) is undermined by real-world data from the state,”said Michael Saltsman, managing director of the Employment Policies Institute. “Legislators should use this data, rather than unscientific labor surveys, to evaluate this unprecedented and unjustified takeover of the fast food restaurant industry.”

This story was originally published August 5, 2022 5:25 AM.

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