California eyes empower 500,000 fast food workers

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California’s more than half a million fast-food workers would benefit from increased power and protections as part of the country’s first measure approved by the state Assembly on Monday.

Workers would be included alongside employers and state agencies in a new Fast Food Industry Council to establish statewide minimum standards on wages, hours, training and working conditions, including procedures designed to protect employees from the coronavirus pandemic.

It would be limited to fast food restaurants with at least 30 locations nationwide.

“California has a chance to lead the country and resolve outstanding issues in the fast food industry,” said Democratic Assemblyman Chris Holden, himself a former franchisee. “It’s about fairness and it’s about bringing all responsible parties to the table to collaborate on solutions.

Unions have made the bill regulating the fast food industry and strengthening the voice of the estimated 557,000 fast food workers in the most populous state a priority. But he initially failed in June, even in a legislature overwhelmingly dominated by Democrats, missing the 41 votes he needed to pass the 80-member Assembly by three votes.

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He passed the state Assembly Monday on a 41-19 vote and is now heading to the state Senate.

He ignored objections from some Democrats who said he was delegating too much legislative power to the council. The legislature would have 60 days to strike down council regulations before they go into effect.

Other opponents have argued against designating fast food workers for a board when employees in other fields may also have similar pay and safety issues.

The bill “simply takes entire franchises and franchise brands away from California,” Republican Congressman Kelly Seyarto said.

Advocates said fast-food workers are the largest and fastest-growing group of low-wage state private-sector workers, but lack industry-specific protections.

They estimate that about 80% of workers in California are Latino, black or Asian, two-thirds are women, and many live in working-class communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

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But the International Franchise Association said a growing number of women and racial minorities own franchised establishments.

“This potential for continued growth is threatened” by the bill, the opposition group said, as is “the pursuit of economic recovery from the pandemic.”

Fast food workers as well as local franchisees “are often at the mercy” of fast food chains, said Bob Schoonover, president of SEIU California, which has 700,000 members, ahead of the vote. The bill “addresses this power imbalance by bringing workers and franchisees together to raise standards and protections in the California fast food industry.”

Among other things, employees could sue the restaurant if they claim they were fired, discriminated against or retaliated against for exercising the rights created under the bill. And franchisees could sue franchisors if they believe companies are preventing them from complying with health, safety and employment laws.

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The council would report to the Department of Industrial Relations, with 11 members appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, all of whom are currently Democrats.

It would include two fast food employee representatives, two fast food employee advocate representatives, one fast food franchiser representative and one fast food franchisee representative.

The remaining five members would be representatives of public bodies.

The bill was first introduced by longtime labor advocate Lorena Gonzalez, perhaps best known nationally for her legislation to give many independent contractors the same rights and benefits as full-time employees. Gonzalez stepped down this month to become executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation.

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