All Eyes on California as Fast-Food Worker Rights Land on the 2024 Ballot | Civil Eats

All Eyes on California as Fast-Food Worker Rights Land on the 2024 Ballot

The state’s landmark law giving fast-food workers a greater voice was set to start in January—until opponents stalled it with a ballot referendum. 

Fast-food workers and activists protest McDonald's labor practices outside a McDonald's restaurant on March 18, 2014 in Oakland, California. (Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Fast-food workers and activists protest McDonald’s labor practices outside a McDonald’s restaurant on March 18, 2014 in Oakland, California. (Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

When Ingrid Vilorio tested positive for COVID-19 in March 2021, she wasn’t worried about her symptoms or even ending up in the hospital. She was worried she wouldn’t be able to make rent.

Vilorio works at a Jack in the Box near her home in Hayward, California. When she told her manager she was sick, her manager told Vilorio that she wouldn’t be paid for any of the days she missed. So, eight days later, Vilorio went back to work.

“They needed me to come back, and I needed to pay my bills,” Vilorio said in Spanish during a recent interview.

“In an industry where it’s very hard for workers to unionize because of the franchise model, it creates a way in which workers can have a collective voice in the process of setting the standards.”

Until one of her coworkers told her, Vilorio didn’t know that, under California law, she was entitled to sick pay for the days she missed. And with a son at home, she needed that pay. So, with the help of the workers’ rights group Fight for $15, she and a group of her coworkers went on strike, demanding not only the sick pay they were entitled to, but also basic health safeguards like hand sanitizer and masks.

“I was scared,” she said. “I didn’t want to have problems with my employer.”

After five months, the restaurant’s management finally agreed to pay Vilorio for the eight sick days. She was frustrated by the fact it took going on strike to receive the money she was owed.

Jack in the Box did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did any other fast-food restaurant mentioned in this story.

Vilorio is one of 550,000 fast-food workers in California, and her story is not unique.

“Wage theft is really rampant in the fast-food industry, as are health and safety hazards,” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the U.C. Berkeley Labor Center. Jacobs also points out that Vilorio fits the core demographic of fast-food workers in California: Two-thirds are women, and 60 percent are Latin American.

Recent state-level legislation, A.B. 257 or the FAST Recovery Act, aimed to protect workers like Vilorio by convening a council made up of workers and corporate and franchise representatives to “establish sector-wide minimum standards on wages, working hours, and other working conditions related to the health, safety, and welfare” of fast-food workers.

“In an industry where it’s very hard for workers to unionize because of the franchise model, it creates a way in which workers can have a collective voice in the process of setting the standards in their industry,” said Jacobs.

The bill passed the California Assembly last January and Governor Gavin Newsom signed the measure on Labor Day. However, in December—just a month before the law was set to go into effect—it was put on hold. A coalition led by the International Franchise Association (IFA), a group whose members include McDonald’s and Arby’s, announced it had collected enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot in the next election (despite recent allegations that voters were misled by signature-gatherers telling them they were helping to raise wages for fast-food workers).

“Fortunately, now more than 1 million Californians have spoken out to prevent this misguided policy from driving food prices higher and destroying local businesses and the jobs they create,” said IFA President and CEO Matt Haller in a statement in late January. IFA did not answer specific questions about their opposition to the bill nor the allegations of fraudulent petitioners.

The passage of the FAST Recovery Act was seen as a watershed moment for workers who have long been striking and demanding better pay. Now, all eyes are on the battle in California at a time when fast-food workers around the nation still work for minimum wage and the federal tipped minimum wage—the rate tipped workers are paid in addition to tips—is $2.13. Industry experts say similar legislation could pass in other states with Democratic legislatures and governors, like New York and Michigan.

Flags are flown at a car caravan and rally of fast food workers and supporters for passage of AB 257, a fast-food worker health and safety bill, on April 16, 2021 in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. (Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Flags are flown at a car caravan and rally of fast food workers and supporters for passage of AB 257, a fast-food worker health and safety bill, on April 16, 2021 in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. (Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Upset But Unsurprised

Jimmy Perez, a Papa John’s employee in Los Angeles, doesn’t buy the argument that the FAST Recovery Act would destroy local business.

“That’s just fear-mongering,” he said. Instead, he thinks corporations don’t want to give their workers any seats at the bargaining table. “They want to just turn it off and put it out like a cigarette. We’ve worked hard to get to this point to have a seat finally, and now they want to shut it down, which is very frustrating.”

During the pandemic, Perez said he and his colleagues faced increasingly unsafe working conditions, mostly due to irate customers.

“I’ve had objects thrown at me before. Our drivers have been robbed at gunpoint or threatened with weapons,” he said.

According to a 2022 report from the UCLA Labor Center, nearly half of fast-food workers experienced verbal abuse in the workplace and more than a third experienced violence.

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“There’s been a crisis of workplace violence, which was exacerbated by COVID,” said Jacobs, who contributed to the UCLA report. “During COVID, there were a lot of customers who were unhappy about masking and the enforcement fell to workers.”

Perez said when he brings up safety concerns to his managers, nothing is done about it, and that has led to a lot of turnover and empty positions at his workplace.

“We got single mothers working here. We got kids trying to get through college. We need this money.”

“We’re doing the jobs of two people, three people. So, that causes more stress on us, which then creates more errors at work, which then creates more irate customers and an increased chance of violence. It’s a domino effect.”

The council established by the FAST Recovery Act would consist of a balanced roster of fast-food workers, worker representatives, franchisors, and franchisees, as well as two representatives of the governor’s administration. Any proposal would need six votes to go forward.

One of the potential proposals Perez is most excited about—should A.B. 257 ultimately go into effect—is a minimum wage hike.

“We got single mothers working here. We got kids trying to get through college. We need this money,” he said.

The council would have the authority to raise the minimum hourly wage to $22. Right now, Perez makes $16 an hour, which he said is barely enough to survive in Los Angeles. A wage increase would give him some financial wiggle room and also dignify the job he feels proud to do.

“For many of us, it’s not just a job. It’s doing what we love. Many of us, it’s our passion and our craft,” he said. “Like a city worker or a government worker, we want that level of respect.” A higher wage, he said, would command a higher level of respect.

For Jack Slavsky-Fode, who works at an Arby’s in Hollywood, a higher wage would mean being able to get a place of his own. The 20-year-old currently lives in a two-bedroom apartment with his mom. “I still can’t even afford a studio apartment here,” he said.

But, for Slavsky-Fode, it’s not just about the potential wage increase. It’s also about giving workers like him a seat at the table.

“That way we could actually open up a line of communication so we can talk about these problems and discuss how we can actually fix this,” he said, referring to issues like verbal and sexual harassment and discrimination.

Slavsky-Fode said he’s one of the rare fast-food workers who has had a generally positive experience. His manager is supportive and he feels respected.

“I am very thankful to be working with that crew, because you hear how often somebody gets discriminated against based on their race or their gender or their orientation, and you hear how often they have to deal with horrible customers and all that.”

While he’s upset the law didn’t go into effect on January 1, he’s not surprised. “Knowing how much power and control a lot of fast-food corporations have, I’m not surprised,” he said. “It’s disheartening, but it ain’t going to stop us.”

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The Fight Forward

Now, with the fate of the FAST Recovery Act in the hands of California voters, fast-food workers and labor unions are preparing for a fight leading up to the 2024 election. Food-focused labor unions have won myriad rights and benefits for workers in the past, including higher wages and even access to healthcare.

“I believe the power of the workers and the voice of the people is our competitive advantage,” said Tia Orr, executive director of California’s Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which pushed for the legislation. “I think workers are coming together in ways that we haven’t seen in a while. I mean, you see the support for unions and workers growing day by day.”

“Once we get this for fast-food workers, we can also get this for retail workers. And then everybody . . . That’s how progress works.”

In recent weeks, SEIU has also supported new legislation aimed at holding corporate franchisors jointly liable for franchisee violations. Dubbed the Fast-Food Corporate Franchisor Responsibility Act, the act was authored by California Assembly Member Chris Holden, who also authored the FAST Recovery Act.

“This bill will destroy tens of thousands of local restaurants by eliminating the equity they have built over decades of franchise small business ownership,” said IFA president Matthew Haller in a statement.

Another recent bill, authored by state senator Monique Limón, would change a current California law that requires fast-food workers to pay for a mandatory food-safety training, instead requiring employers to pay for the training and the workers’ time for completing the training. A recent investigation from the New York Times revealed the company offering the training course is closely associated with the National Restaurant Association, which has spent decades lobbying against raising the tipped minimum wage.

Orr is also looking at how to reform California’s referendum process, which she said is being abused by corporations with deep pockets. “We want to be sure that we’re not circumventing our democracy through a referendum process, but we’re actually encouraging it and we’re being honest and truthful and not deceitful in our behavior as we try to overturn laws in the state of California,” she said.

But Orr hasn’t given up hope on the FAST Recovery Act. She urges Californians to vote in next year’s election with fast-food workers in mind. “It’s time for us to stand up to corporate power,” she said. “We won’t be deceived into believing something is hurtful to workers when it actually is beneficial to workers.”

The legislation has already had ripple effects outside of California, with copycat bills cropping up in states including Virginia and New York. Arby’s worker Slavsky-Fode hopes the fight will also ripple out to other industries.

“Once we get this for fast-food workers, we can also get this for retail workers. And then everybody . . . That’s how progress works,” he said.

Over the past year, Jack in the Box worker Vilorio has gone on strike, made several trips to Sacramento to press legislators to back the bill, and has even slept on the steps of the Capitol building, demanding attention. Her motivation to keep up the fight is simple: She wants to spend more time with her son, whom she rarely gets to see while he’s awake.

“Many of us don’t have enough time to dedicate to our kids because we’re working multiple jobs,” she said. “This bill would give us the opportunity to spend a little bit more time with them.”

Dana Cronin is an independent audio and print journalist based in Oakland, California. She has covered agriculture and environmental issues for Illinois Public Media and Harvest Public Media, a Midwest reporting collaborative focused on food and agriculture. Her work has been regularly featured on national broadcasts, including NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, PBS Newshour and Science Friday. Read more >

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