California eyes giving 500,000 fast food workers more power

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FILE Fast-food workers drive-through to protest for a $15 dollar hourly minimum wage outside a McDonald's restaurant in East Los Angeles Friday, March 12, 2021. On Monday, Jan. 31, 2022 California lawmakers approved a first-in-the-nation measure by Assemblyman Chris Holden that gives California's more than half-million fast food workers increased power and protections. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California's more than half-million fast food workers would get increased power and protections under a first-in-the-nation measure approved by the state Assembly on Monday.

Workers would be included alongside employers and state agencies on a new Fast-Food Sector Council to set statewide minimum standards on wages, working 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 establishments nationally.

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

Organized labor made the bill regulating the fast food industry and boosting the voice of the most populous state's estimated nation-leading 557,000 fast food workers a priority. But it initially failed in June even in a Legislature overwhelmingly dominated by Democrats, falling three votes short of the 41 it needed to pass the 80-member Assembly.

It passed the state Assembly Monday on a 41-19 vote and now heads to the state Senate.

It passed over the objections of some Democrats who said it delegates too much legislative power to the council. The Legislature would have 60 days to overrule the council's regulations before they take effect.

Other opponents objected to singling out fast food workers for a council when employees in other fields may also have similar wage and safety concerns.

The bill "just drives entire franchises and franchise brands away from California,” said Republican Assemblyman Kelly Seyarto.

Supporters said fast food workers make up the largest and fastest growing group of low-wage, private sector workers in the state, but have lacked protections specific to their industry.

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

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

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

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

Among other things, employees could sue the restaurant if they contend they have been fired, discriminated or retaliated against for exercising the rights created under the bill. And franchisees could bring actions against franchisors if they believe the corporations are impeding their compliance with health, safety and employment laws.

The council would be under the Department of Industrial Relations, with 11 members appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, all currently Democrats.

It would include two representatives of fast food restaurant employees, two representatives of advocates for fast food restaurant employees, one representative of fast food restaurant franchisors and one representative of fast food restaurant franchisees.

The remaining five members would be representatives of state agencies.

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