California's controversial fast-food bill moves toward a Senate vote

The Fast Act would give quick-service workers a loud voice in determining their pay and job conditions. It's already been approved by the Assembly.
California Fast Act
The California Fast Act was voted out of committee in California and is now heading to a vote by the full State Senate. / Photograph: Shutterstock

A first-of-its-kind bill that would give fast-food workers in California a loud say in setting wages, hours and workplace conditions is heading to a vote by the full state Senate after clearing a third legislative committee.

The Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act would create a council of workers, union advocates, employers and government regulators to review and update workplace standards every six months. The mandates would apply only to employees of quick-service restaurants and are aimed in particular at chain operations.

The act also establishes that fast-food franchisors are by definition the joint employers of their franchisees’ staffs, a move that chain headquarters fear would expose them to a torrent of lawsuits arising from licensees’ employment policies and practices.

Under the measure, any California jurisdiction with a population of at least 200,000 could create its own committee to set standards for the local fast-food labor force. 

The Senate has until Aug. 31 to consider the Fast Act, or AB 257. It has already been approved by the state Assembly.

California fast-food operators have voiced sharp concerns that the labor-heavy composition of the council would put them at a disadvantage in managing labor expenses and operations. Under the proposed set-up, a pro-employee contingent could easily outvote the employers on such matters as the minimum permissible wage, the minimum or a maximum number of hours a staff member can work, and what workplace conditions are mandated.

The state legislature and relevant regulatory agencies could alter or overturn what the council sets, but the council has wide latitude in what it can propose.

Proponents say the act is necessary to curb what they characterize as rampant mistreatment of fast-food workers within the state, the nation’s largest quick-service market by far. California is home to 34,700 restaurant franchises, 69.4% of them single-unit operations, according to the International Franchise Association (IFA).

“Women, especially Black and brown women, have long worked in essential but undervalued jobs that leave them struggling to support themselves and their families,” a coalition of 30 women’s groups said in a letter to Senate members. “The fast-food industry in California embodies these inequities.”

The advocates allege that employers disregard employees’ legal protections soared during the pandemic. But state data show that only 1.6% of alleged violations of wage laws involved restaurants, the IFA says.

“AB 257 is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” IFA CEO Matt Haller said in a statement.

“The proponents of the bill are saying they’re trying to address violations of labor law like wage theft and meal and rest break violations, those are violations of existing law,” Greg Flynn, the restaurant industry’s largest franchisee, said in the statement. His holdings include 24 franchised Panera Bread restaurants in northern California.

What’s needed is enforcement of those laws,” he continued. “Our margins, our profits have gone down from 9% to 3.5%. We’re barely hanging on. And when I think about the creation of a state council that is designed specifically to add more costs, I don’t know if we can make it.”

There does not seem to be a consensus on how the Senate will vote on the Fast Act. The uncertainty stems in part from how the bill might be amended to make it more palatable and politically viable. For instance, the composition of the council has been tweaked several times as the measure moved through two Senate committees.

A third panel, the Senate Appropriations Committee, passed the measure late Thursday by a 5-2 vote.

Councils like the one that would be created by the Fast Act are virtually unknown in the United States but are less uncommon in Europe, where they often provide the worker advocacy role of unions.   

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