By Sheri Williams
On Jan. 15, fast food workers across the U.S. staged actions to continue their fight for $15 an hour, a campaign started against the odds in 2012 that has grown to encompass the new president as a backer.
In Sacramento, Burger King workers also shut down a location to demand hazard pay during the pandemic, which has hit essential workers such as those in hospitality and food service the hardest.
On the same day local workers took action, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a longtime Labor champion, introduced legislation that would require fast food restaurants to provide safer conditions during the pandemic.
Assembly Bill 257, known as the Fast Food Accountability and Standards (FAST) Recovery Act, will guarantee fast food workers at large chain fast-food establishments the ability to shape industry-wide workplace standards and empower workers to hold companies accountable for providing safe working conditions.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cooks and cashiers who make up California’s largely Latino, API and Black fast food workforce have shown up for work, despite many being denied basic protections like PPE and paid sick leave, Gonzalez said in a statement. In more than 200 complaints filed with state and local health agencies, workers have detailed harrowing working conditions such as COVID-19 outbreaks in their stores, being asked to wear doggie diapers or coffee filters as masks, and being forced to work sick under threat of retaliation.
“I have gone on strike over COVID concerns four times since the beginning of the pandemic, one of my co-workers fought for her life on a ventilator, and one died of COVID complications,” said Laura Pozos, a worker at a corporate-owned and operated McDonald’s in Monterey Park, near Los Angeles. “Despite walking off the job and making demands for basic protections, my co-workers and I are currently facing another COVID outbreak in our store. But COVID isn’t the first crisis workers like me have dealt with. In the face of low wages, a lack of benefits and job security, it has been clear that fast food workers need power on the job. Large fast-food chains can and must do better by workers. We hope the FAST Recovery Act can accomplish these two things.”
On the national front, the action for a higher minimum wage, also backed by SEIU, came at a key moment. President Joe Biden, who ran with a promise of $15 an hour, made good on that ideal in his first days. Biden included the raised minimum in a Covid-19 stimulus package. Sen. Bernie Sanders, backed by 37 Democrats, introduced legislation recently that would raise the wage to $15 an hour over five years.
But that minimum wage increase has become a key point of contention. The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour, far outpaced by inflation. But some in Congress still argue that the increase would hurt the economy and small business in particular—a claim that has not panned out with numerous examples across the country of places where it has been implemented.
“The Raise the Wage Act is a huge step forward in deciding to end poverty work in America,” said Service Employees International Union (SEIU) International President Mary Kay Henry in a statement. “Fast-food workers ignited a movement when they boldly walked off the job demanding $15 an hour and the right to come together in a union eight years ago. That first strike led to action after action, and millions more workers across the U.S. economy linked arms to call on corporations and our elected leaders to hear their demand for higher wages, a call that is more urgent today than ever before.”
Henry added that the impact COVID-19 has had on working people has made it crystal clear that our economy is broken for the millions of people who can’t afford to provide for their families. That is most true for the Black and brown essential workers who have kept us safe and fed throughout this health crisis.
“In order to truly recover from COVID-19 we need to pass the Raise the Wage Act. Due to generations of racism in education, healthcare and the workforce people of color are more likely to work in the low-paying jobs on the frontline of the pandemic and be hardest hit by its economic effects,” Henry said. “They are risking their lives, and dying at the highest rates, to keep our country running. We cannot call them essential while allowing large corporations and industries to pay them so little that they are forced to rely on food stamps, public housing and the emergency room for healthcare. We can begin to right these wrongs by ensuring everyone makes at least $15 an hour, strengthening our entire country in the process by moving us toward racial equity.
Essential workers have been demanding, loudly and clearly, that they need to be respected, protected and paid. We urge members of Congress to heed their call and pass the Raise the Wage Act so that millions of working people can be paid enough to lead a decent life, provide for their family and build a better future during the pandemic and beyond.”