By Sheri Williams
Fast food workers throughout the nation have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic, working for low wages as the virus made their frontline jobs more dangerous.
California legislators recently moved forward a bill that would give fast food workers more rights and protections as they, and the state, tries to move forward even as the virus continues to circulate.
The Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act, known as the FAST Act, would set up an 11-member independent council that includes representatives for state agencies that oversee labor, workplace safety and health issues, as well as two workers, two employee advocates and a representative each for corporations and franchises.
That new council would set minimum standards for the industry on key issues such as pay and working conditions. They would only have authority over fast food chains with more than 30 outlets around the country, exempting small businesses.
It is a first-in-the-nation attempt to raise standards and give workers a voice in an industry that has traditionally afforded little power to its employees.
The bill, Assembly Bill 257, passed through the Assembly and now moves to the Senate. It passed with the minimum number of votes required, and organizers expect a tough fight in the Senate.
“I think it creates an opportunity for there to be a seat at the table for all of the parties who really need to have a chance to voice their concerns to the franchisor and to see that their working conditions and the issues that impact them are taken seriously,” Assemblymember Chris Holden, the sponsor of the bill, told media.
Labor leaders said the FAST Act is a vital piece of legislation, and point out that the majority of fast food workers are people of color and women.
SEIU California said in a statement that, “long-standing issues in the fast food restaurant industry have left more than half a million California fast food workers vulnerable to wage theft, sexual harassment, violence in the workplace, and health and safety violations.”
SEIU California President Bob Schoonover said in a statement that fast food workers are “a lesson in courage,” for working through the pandemic and fighting for better conditions. Workers have reported that customers have become more abusive during the pandemic, even as illness and fear has led to greater staffing shortages. In some instances, workers have reported being told to show up for their shifts despite testing positive for COVID-19, and have faced being fired for refusing to do so. Labor leaders say that type of harassment is common in the industry.
“Despite threats, workplace hazards, retaliation, and profoundly exploitative work conditions, (fast food workers) have emerged as leading voices in the nation for equity and respect at work,” Schoonover continued in the statement.
Along with wage and safety provisions, the bill is also meant to protect workers from retaliation if they report workplace abuses. It would also create more accountability for franchise owners and corporations by making them share the responsibility for workplace problems, a change that advocates have long fought for. Under the current system, advocates contend that corporations often skirt responsibility for workplace violations by arguing franchises run as small businesses—though franchises often are under strict rules for how their operations function.