‘We’ll be heard’: California could grant fast food workers unprecedented power

Fast food workers in California are fighting to pass a first of its kind bill that would provide employees with the power to negotiate wages and possibly improve working condition standards across the industry.

The Fast Recovery Act, or AB 257, would create a statewide fast food sector council that would include workers, state regulators, franchises and their parent companies and set wage and other standards for the industry. The act would also hold franchises and their parent corporations more accountable to labor laws.

Workers say the legislation is a means to fight low pay, poor working conditions, and a lack of safety protections – problems that have long plagued the industry but that workers say have worsened during the pandemic.

“There are a lot of laws protecting workers but nobody is implementing or doing anything about it. We are essential workers but not treated like that. With the Fast Recovery Act, we’ll be heard. We’ll sit down at the same table with all the franchises and say if there is a law protecting workers, it has to be followed and applied,” said Maria Yolanda Torres, who has worked at a Subway store in San Jose, California, since May 2018.

Throughout the pandemic, Yolanda Torres alleges, she and her colleagues have been forced to skip breaks and work off the clock, had tips stolen, had sick pay taken away, and faced safety problems, including abusive customers, that were ignored by the store’s owners. The owners did not enforce Covid-19 regulations or protect workers when customers refused to abide by them, Yolanda Torres alleged. She was asked to climb into the store dumpster to stomp the garbage bags down so they all fit into one overflowing dumpster, she said.

“It’s a lot of garbage. It’s disgusting and it’s not safe. If we fall down, the owner wouldn’t pay me if I got hurt. The owner only wants to pay for the one dumpster when we need two,” she said.

When sick pay didn’t show up on her paycheck, the owner and managers refused to resolve the issue, she said.

Yolanda and three of her co-workers at Subway in February filed a wage theft complaint with the California department of labor. They also filed health complaints with CalOSHA, the state’s division of occupational safety and health, alleging various forms of wage theft incurred by the four workers for a total of more than $41,000. The Subway franchise owner received PPP loans and Covid-19 grants totaling more than $285,000, according to a copy of the complaints provided to the Guardian.

Subway and the franchise owner, Rajiv Kohli, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the complaints.

Yolanda Torres said working conditions like the ones she experienced are common in the industry. “Workers are facing similar issues across fast food franchises in the state, but the owners don’t care about the consequences,” she said. “When owners realize we know our rights and that somebody is listening, the problems are going to be resolved.”

A recent survey of fast food workers in Los Angeles, conducted by the UCLA Labor Center, found workers reported lack of paid sick leave, widespread lack of enforcement of Covid-19 safety protocols and economic insecurity; 44% of workers surveyed reported not having enough money to afford groceries during the pandemic; 43% reported missing rent or a mortgage payment; 47% of workers reported working more than one job to try to make ends meet.

Among workers who said they had expressed workplace concerns to their managers, 25% said they had experienced retaliation for doing so.

Jose Ramirez, a worker at McDonald’s in San Francisco for three years, was terminated on 8 February due to what he alleges was retaliation for advocating for Covid-19 sick pay for himself and co-workers who were not receiving it.

He filed a complaint with the California department of labor standards enforcement alleging the firing was retaliation and provided a copy of the complaint. In February 2021, a McDonald’s franchisee in Los Angeles, California, was fined $125,000 by the state for illegally firing four workers for reporting Covid-19 safety issues.

“We need to keep pushing to make AB 257 law and that law will protect all the workers in fast food. I believe if AB 257 was law already, my employer wouldn’t carry out firing me just because I spoke out and demanded my rights as a worker,” said Ramirez. “Only united as workers will we be strong enough to fight against all the bad practices in the fast food industry.”

The McDonald’s franchise owner and operator Scott Rodrick declined to comment on Ramirez’s case.

“My organization does not tolerate retaliation of any kind against our employees. We have not received an inquiry from the California department of labor regarding this allegation. Thus, we cannot comment on this particular employment matter,” said Rodrick in an email.

“We do, however, firmly believe in creating a safe working environment for all of our employees, including adhering to our high standards for Covid safety as we all work together to help contain the pandemic. Everyone working within my organization has the obligation to uphold those safety standards.”

California has more than 550,000 fast food workers, according to estimates, more than any state in the US. The bill, whose regulations would be limited to fast food restaurants with at least 30 franchises across the US, passed in the California Assembly on 31 January and is awaiting a vote in the Senate.

But the bill faces strong opposition from groups who argue the proposal would grant the council too much power.

The bill “just drives entire franchises and franchise brands away from California,” Republican assemblyman Kelly Seyarto told the Associated Press.

Democratic assemblyman Chris Holden, a former franchisee himself, told the AP the bill gives the state “a chance to lead the country and address outstanding issues in the fast food industry”.

“It is about fairness and it is about bringing all the responsible parties to the table to collaborate on solutions.”

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