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Labor advocates use West Coast heat to press for more say on fast-food pay

A union group is also using the unprecedented weather conditions to push for a joint-employer standard.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Labor advocates have seized on the West Coast’s heat wave as a way of mustering support for giving California fast-food workers considerable leverage in setting the state’s wage and workplace standards for national quick-service chains.

If the effort is successful and proposed legislation is passed, the state’s quick-service workforce would have a significant role in determining what provisions the chains would have to make for the income, safety, training and comfort of California units’ employees.

The legislative measure would also codify that restaurant franchisors are joint employers of franchisees’ staffs, making the deep-pocketed big chains liable for the workplace policies and practices of the licensees. Franchisors could be sued or fined along with the franchisees for infractions of state labor standards.  

The bill, called the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act, would establish an 11-person Fast Food Sector Council to set and review workplace standards in the state’s quick-service market.

Two seats would be held by fast-food workers, and two more places would be given to union representatives or other labor advocates. One seat would be occupied by a restaurant franchisee and another by a restaurant franchisor. The remaining five seats would be held by agents of various state labor and workplace regulatory bodies.

The council would have broad authority to set standards on wages, training and such working conditions as kitchen and dining room temperatures. The so-called Fast Act would also permit communities of at least 200,000 residents to set up a version of the committee and set local standards that reflect the market’s cost of living.

The state-level Council would be required to hold hearings on sector conditions every six months and to review all labor regulations pertinent to the fast-food market at least every three years. Its decisions and directives would apply only to the California units of chains with at least 30 restaurants nationwide.

The Council would have the power to issue subpoenas as part of its review authority.

In instances where the Council’s regulations conflict with state workplace rules, the former would have precedence, though only for the fast-food sector. Requirements set by the committee would not be binding on full-service restaurants and other workplaces.

The Fast Act was introduced in January but found no traction. It is technically “inactive,” legislative-speak for “shelved at the moment.”

Fight for $15 and a Union, an advocacy group backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), is trying to bolster public support for the measure by citing instances where fast-food employees say they were forced to work without adequate air conditioning. The public-relations effort comes as an unprecedented heat wave grips the West Coast, with temperatures registering well over 100 degrees.

The group is convening a demonstration today at a Jack in the Box restaurant in Sacramento. Fight for $15 says the unit’s air conditioning was not working from June 14 through the 20th, when temperatures hit 109 degrees. The situation has already prompted employees of the store to file a complaint with a state public-health agency.

Fight for $15 is also spotlighting a Los Angeles McDonald’s unit that allegedly remaining in business despite its air conditioning being broken during a stretch of 90-degree days.

Passage of the Fast Act would provide a way to keep wages growing without resorting each time to legislation or a referendum. It would also be a backdoor way of classifying franchisors as a joint employer of franchisees' employees, a development the franchise community has been fighting for at least six years on a national level.

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