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Silicon Valley lawmakers advance bill to improve fast food working conditions

By Eli Wolfe, San Jose

January 22, 2022

A sweeping change in protections for fast-food workers could upend the franchise framework, and while union rights advocates are happy to see it progress, franchise owners don’t entirely agree.

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Members of the state Assembly voted 43 to 13 on Thursday to approve amendments to Assembly Bill 257, the FAST Accountability Act and Fast Food Standards. The bill envisions a state-appointed council to create standards for the fast food industry, ranging from working conditions to wages. It would also make companies jointly responsible with their franchisees for complying with the law.

The bill was introduced last year by former Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, but failed to pass by three votes. A modified version of the bill was reintroduced earlier this week by Assembly members Chris Holden, Wendy Carrillo, Luz Rivas and Evan Low. Low, who represents part of Silicon Valley, did not respond to requests for comment. The state Assembly must vote on the bill by Jan. 31 to move it to the state Senate.

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Assemblyman Ash Kalra, who represents East San Jose, told San Jose Spotlight he supports the idea of ​​improving legal compliance in the fast food industry and giving workers a voice.

“This ensures that workers and employers work with state agencies to raise standards and general protections within the industry,” Kalra said. He added that the amendments did not substantially alter the original bill.

workers in need

AB 257 received significant support from labor groups across the state, including the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Earlier this month, members of SEIU 1021 rallied in Sacramento to urge lawmakers to protect workers from abuse.

“These frontline workers, mostly black and brown women, are routinely assaulted, robbed, spat at, yelled at, sworn at and told to return to ‘their country,'” the organization’s vice president said. SEIU 1021, Jennifer Esteen, in a statement.

Many business groups are adamantly opposed to state legislation. Mark Turner, president/CEO of the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce, told the San Jose Spotlight he’s worried the state-appointed board will force companies to pay higher wages beyond approved minimum standards.

Larry Tripplett, owner of three McDonald’s franchises in Santa Clara County, told San Jose Spotlight that he already faces many challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s really been a strain because so many (employees) are catching COVID, so staffing is difficult,” Triplett said. “Then when you come up with other bureaucratic procedures like AB 257, it just adds to the difficulty of running a small business.”

Recent research suggests that fast food workers have worked in dire conditions during the pandemic. A report on Los Angeles fast food workers from the UCLA Labor Center found that more than half of workers surveyed had had negative interactions with customers or co-workers about COVID-19 safety protocols, including verbal abuse and physical assault. Almost a quarter said they had tested positive and only 47% said they were entitled to paid sick leave if they or a colleague contracted the virus.

Locally, a Burger King employee in San Jose filed a complaint last year with the Occupational Safety and Health Division (Cal/OSHA) alleging that her employer failed to protect her from the heat, a common problem in restaurants and other industries like agriculture.

“There are glaring problems in the fast food industry,” Ruth Silver-Taube, labor attorney and coordinator for the Santa Clara County Wage Theft Coalition, told San Jose Spotlight, noting that wage theft, sexual harassment and workplace violence are widespread.

Silver-Taube said unionizing would potentially help alleviate some of these issues, but it’s difficult to build unions in many small workplaces owned by different franchisees. This is why she considers it imperative to set up a council that can create mandatory standards.

“It’s really the only way to effectively eradicate these issues,” she said, noting that Santa Clara County recently established a Food Retail Advisory Board that will make recommendations on similar labor issues at the local level.

Business concerns

A common argument made by groups like the International Franchise Association is that AB 257 will take away opportunities for small entrepreneurs and disproportionately harm people of color.

Sean Kali-rai, co-founder of the Silicon Valley Restaurant Association, told San Jose Spotlight that restaurants and small businesses are where many minorities and immigrants can find upward mobility.

“Franchises are places where parent and pop companies find refuge and seek economic freedom from big business and corporate America,” Kali-rai said in a statement. “The unintended consequences of AB 257 would push away opportunities for budding entrepreneurs and small business owners. Limiting or destroying small business franchises is un-American.”

Some labor experts say the claim that AB 257 reduces job opportunities is false.

“As long as there is a demand for fast food, companies will find a way to make restaurant operations profitable,” said Catherine L. Fisk, professor of labor and employment law at UC Berkeley, in San Jose Spotlight. “They franchise rather than operate them themselves in order to reduce the company’s labor costs by shifting the responsibility to the franchisee to comply with the law.”

Parent companies set prices and operating requirements that prevent franchisees from complying with the law while making a profit, Fisk added. In a recent column, she noted that many franchisees cut labor costs to meet company guidelines on working hours and customer service.

AB 257 would require these companies to meet with franchisees and workers to establish pricing and operating principles that make money, but are also legal. Franchisees would have the ability to sue franchisors if company policies prevented them from meeting health and safety standards set by the proposed Fast Food Industry Council.

“It won’t eliminate business opportunities for franchisees, but rather it will allow franchisees to comply with the law while making a profit,” she said.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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