Legislature moves forward on rights for fast food workers

By Sheri Williams

A bill that would give fast food workers more rights in the workplace continues to advance through the California state Legislature.

Assembly Bill 257 has moved through the Assembly and is now working its way through the Senate.

Based on previous legislation by former Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, who now leads the California Labor Federation, the bill would create a statewide council for the fast food industry that could set minimum standards on wages, working conditions and other key issues such as hours and scheduling.

Fast food workers have been fighting across the state in support of the legislation for months, including coordinated strikes. Workers have described the industry as rife with wage theft and requirements for unpaid overtime.

In July, U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) hosted a roundtable with fast food workers, union members and leaders with Service Employees International Union Local 521 in San Jose. Khanna told media that he supported the legislation and hoped it could spark more worker-centered legislation across the county.

“We showed it was possible in California,” Khanna told media. “What you do in California, the whole country is going to do.”

Crystal Orozco, a McDonald’s worker from Sacramento, told media she comes from a union family and saw how union membership benefitted them growing up. She believes unionizing could help her family in that same way.

“I want those same rights that my mom got,” Orozco said.

Maria Bernal, another Sacramento fast food worker, told media that she has been the victim of regular wage theft, and has been forced to work overtime without commiserate pay. The low pay and long hours left her unable to pay for permanent housing, and she ended up living in her car with her children and in rented rooms, she told media. “My kids still have scars from the bed bugs,” Bernal said.

Khanna said he believed the right to unionize fast food restaurants was vital for all workers.

“You can’t have democracy and rights in America if you don’t have workplace democracy,” Khanna told media.

The fast food industry in California employees more than 700,000 people, the majority people of color and women. The legislation is supported by SEIU and the Fight for $15 campaign.

Front of the house fast food workers in California made $15.61 an hour and those in the kitchens made $15.35 on average, according to federal data from May.

The fight for a centralized authority in the industry is playing out against the backdrop of a wave of unionizations in California and across the country. Most notably, workers at Starbuck and Amazon are successfully winning the right to collectively bargain.

But fast food workers fear that their industry, which is fragmented by multiple owners and corporate structures that make accountability difficult, will be left out of that momentum.

Sacramento fast food worker Leticia Reyes told media that she was forced to work in person through the pandemic as the only wage earner in her home.

“They’re making millions and millions of dollars off of us, the workers,” Reyes told media. “And we aren’t very safe.”