Pay Bills

Fast food workers could get collective bargaining and better working standards under new legislation

California fast food workers could gain collective bargaining power under a bill that will pass through the state legislature, a move that could dramatically change the fast food and franchise industries.

AB257 create a fast food industry council to set minimum wages, hours and workplace standards. The 11-member council would be made up of state, business and labor representatives and hosted by the Department of Industrial Relations.

The bill is backed by labor groups and opposed by restaurant and business interests.

For California’s more than half a million fast-food workers like Crystal Orozco, the bill would provide peace of mind that someone is fighting for their interests.

During her last job at a Jack in the Box in Folsom, Orozco said she was never allowed breaks during her shifts at the cemetery, as she was one of only two employees at the store during the night.

“Not once did I have a 30 or ten minute break,” she said in an interview. “I saw them outright not paying people for the hours they worked.”

The Carmichael resident led two strikes at the restaurant over its COVID-19 safety protocols and a broken air conditioner. She said managers threatened to call immigration authorities about a colleague who was also pushing for better working conditions.

“They want people to be blind to these laws just to make a quick buck,” Orozco said. “They can get their bonuses and we’re the ones breaking their backs.”

Most fast food restaurants are franchised, meaning the locations are owned and operated by independent business owners, not the companies whose name they bear.

Business owners sign a contract and pay some fees to the national brand. In return, they benefit from the sale of well-known products – like Big Macs – and national marketing from their franchisor.

But in the AB257 debate, many franchise owners bristle at being lumped in with giant corporations and the perception that they are the ones squeezing workers while pocketing billions in revenue.

Restaurant and business groups oppose the bill, arguing it would add another layer of cost and regulation to an industry where profit margins are often razor thin.

Leena Mann owns and operates two Sacramento-area subways and a Del Taco with her husband and brother-in-law.

“We’re not Del Taco,” she said. “We own this flag to run this business, but it’s us behind it as small business owners who run these businesses.”

Mann said hourly wages have increased significantly since opening their first restaurant in 2016, when the minimum wage was $10 an hour. The family fears that AB257 will add another layer of bureaucracy and make business even more difficult.

“If employees have issues, they have current resources like Cal-OSHA, Department of Industrial Relations, they also have a labor task force for any issues. We are already in compliance with these agencies,” she said.

AB257 includes language that would make franchise owners and the companies they cross jointly liable for labor law violations.

The bill’s author, Democratic Assemblyman Chris Holden, acknowledged during a committee hearing earlier this summer that many franchise owners treat their workers well.

“Those who don’t do the right thing aren’t going to tell their employees how to hold them accountable,” he said. “That’s why this bill is here.”

Another responsibility of the council would be to promote industry standards – or do more to make workers aware of their rights.

Holden, himself a former franchisee, says the bill would also allow business owners to sue agreements with companies that prevent them from meeting minimum standards for their employees.

The measure faces a key vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday.

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