SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Since moving to California from Mexico 24 years ago, Maria Bernal has supported her family by often working two jobs at fast food restaurants.
But she says she ended up living in a small Kia with her two youngest children, then aged 3 and 15, for six months after losing her home in 2019 when one of her employers started paying her minimum wage for eight hours even when she was working. a double shift of 16 hours.
Labor organizers and other advocates say this wage theft and other forms of exploitation are common in the fast food industry, especially for women and racial minorities who make up many of the most half a million fast food workers in California. The industry denies that such abuses are widespread.
Bernal and more than 100 others who recently rallied outside the State Capitol are pinning their hopes on groundbreaking legislation that would give fast food workers greater power and protections.
The proposal awaiting final action before the California Legislature adjourns on Wednesday would create a new Fast Food Council made up of four worker delegates alongside four employer representatives and two state officials who would set minimum standards for wages, hours and working conditions in California.
Bernal said she hopes the board gives workers like her “a place at the table where they respect us more and don’t allow wage theft, and most importantly that we don’t fear retaliation.”
Restaurant owners and franchisors say the proposal would drive up the price of fast food. They cite an analysis they commissioned from the UC Riverside Center for Economic Forecast and Development that puts the price increase at 7% to 20%.
A late salary cap added to the bill would keep the increase at the low end of that range. Late amendments limit any minimum wage increase to $22 an hour next year, with cost-of-living increases thereafter, while statewide minimum will be $15.50 dollars an hour.
Other late amendments mean the council would also have to be approved by a petition signed by 10,000 fast food workers, and the council would now disappear after six years unless renewed.
Matthew Haller, president and CEO of the International Franchise Association, called the last-minute revisions “an attempt to put lipstick on a pig.”
An earlier version passed the Assembly in January with no votes to spare after failing last year, and the revised bill is awaiting consideration in the Senate.
Although California’s effort is broader, a wages council created by the governor of New York in 2015 has led to an increase in fast food wages there, and similar efforts have been attempted by some cities. . The left-leaning Center for American Progress says what are also known as labor councils, labor standards councils, or industry committees could tackle economic inequality as well as racial and racial pay gaps. between the sexes.
“If we are successful here, workers in Florida, Texas, New York and even Idaho will be encouraged and they can replicate our successes,” Democratic Congressman Alex Lee said at the workers’ rally.
The California measure would cover fast-food restaurants with at least 100 locations nationwide.
It grew out of the decade-long struggle for $15 and a Union minimum wage movement and union efforts to organize fast food workers in California and across the country.
“It’s more than just a trade union struggle. This is a fight for racial justice, this is a fight for gender justice,” said Joseph Bryant, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union behind the campaign. “Eighty percent of workers are people of color who work in fast food.
Two-thirds of the workers are women who work in fast food and these workers are exploited.
Fast-food workers in California are paid nearly $3 an hour less than comparable workers in other service-industry jobs, according to a joint study released this month by Harvard and UC San Francisco.
Bernal hopes that California law and ongoing efforts to unionize fast food outlets will one day lead to benefits such as paid vacations, medical coverage and a retirement plan. She filed a wage claim earlier this year with state regulators seeking $160,000 in back wages and penalties, while her son alleges child labor violations and threats from employers. a restaurant manager.
Employees are “still fighting for some of the fundamental things that should have happened a long time ago for the fast food workers who serve our community every day, even during a pandemic,” the Democratic Assemblyman said. Chris Holden, the author of the bill.
But Jesse Lara, whose family business operates 34 El Pollo Loco franchises in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, said the bill was unnecessary and would hurt the company’s more than 1,000 employees.
He unfairly assumes “that we have to rip off our employees to make a profit”, when many corporate executives promoted from within, he said. Inflation is “killing us,” he said, and higher wages and benefits would force restaurant owners to raise prices and cut workers’ hours to make ends meet.
The pending bill targets bona fide abuses, but also promotes unions’ collective bargaining goals with the entire industry instead of trying to organize fast-food chains one restaurant at a time, a said Janice Fine, a professor of labor studies and labor relations who directs Rutgers University’s Workplace Justice Laboratory.
Such sectoral negotiations are common in Europe, she said, but rare in the United States.
California already has some of the strongest worker protection laws and regulations in the United States, if not the world, said Matt Sutton, the California Restaurant Association’s senior vice president for government affairs and public policy. .
He disputed claims that the fast food industry has a higher rate of labor, unemployment, health and safety incidents, but said the answer should be for lawmakers to invest more. money in enforcing labor standards instead of creating a new board with single regulatory power over an industry.
“There are ways to punish employers when appropriate,” Sutton said.
Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Department of Finance also opposed the bill in June, citing its potential costs and what it said could be “a fragmented regulatory and legal environment.”
“It is not clear that this bill will achieve its objective, as it attempts to address enforcement delays by creating stricter standards for certain sectors, which could exacerbate existing delays,” the administration warned. .