Of all the nominees for cabinet positions in Donald Trump's White House, the one that may have the most direct and immediate impact on restaurant and food industry workers is Andy Puzder, the current pick for United States Secretary of Labor.
Although CNN recently reported that the polarizing fast-food executive—currently the CEO of CKE restaurants, the parent company of Carl's Jr., Hardee's, and the Green Burrito and Red Burrito brands—may be having "second thoughts" about the appointment, Puzder tweeted that he is looking forward to his confirmation hearing, which will likely take place next month.
Regardless of who is ultimately confirmed for the position, the next labor secretary's policies could greatly affect roughly 14.4 million American restaurant workers, nearly four million of whom work in the fast food sector. Puzder's nomination, however, has many food policy and labor experts deeply worried. They say his history of opposing minimum wage, overtime, and other pro-worker regulations portends a new era of strife for low-income workers—and may even lead to the replacement of workers who speak out... with machines.
Puzder expressed his antipathy to minimum wage in a 2014 op-ed for The Wall St. Journal, where he argued that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 from $7.25—as the Obama administration advocated at the time—would drive business owners to "cut jobs or rely more on technology." Using his own business as a case model, Puzder offered a maxim that he would repeat time and time again: If the government regulates the food industry too heavily, businesses will automate the workers right out of their jobs. Puzder said that if the minimum wage was raised, fast-food franchisees would resort to automated ordering systems, as were being tested at "almost every restaurant chain in the country from Applebee's to McDonald's."
Puzder later said on FOX Business that he was "not opposed to raising the minimum wage rationally," though he has not yet explained what a "rational" raise might mean. If $10.10 is exorbitant, the $15 that many workers advocates support is presumably out of the question.
Champions of the Fight for 15 movement are deeply concerned with Puzder's nomination and the possible shift it signals. Bridget Hughes, a married mother of four who makes $9 per hour at Burger King in Kansas City, Missouri, told MUNCHIES, "Puzder is one of the worst fast food CEOs. He was quoted saying that he wants to replace his workers with machines—because machines can't sue him for sexual harassment, discrimination, [or] wage theft."
Terrence Wise, a 37-year-old McDonald's worker and father of three, echoed that sentiment: "It is even more personal than that for me. My mother worked for Hardee's for over 20 years. To see my mother work so long for the company and experience the low pay that hurt our family and wage theft under that company, it really adds fuel to the fight for me."
Mark Treyger, a Democrat and New York City Councilman, declared at an anti-Puzder rally last week, "We're still waiting for a Secretary of Labor pick, because this putzer Puzder is really a secretary for the wealthy and the powerful—$7.25 can't even cross Hugh Carey Tunnel in New York City. What world are these people living in?"
Puzder is also opposed to mandatory overtime pay laws. In an opinion piece for Forbes, Puzder responded to a newly enacted Labor Department rule, requiring overtime to be paid to salaried managers who make less than $47,500 per year. Puzder argued that the regulation would force young managers to stick to an hourly schedule and give up the "flexible schedules they currently enjoy." Using an employee of his own company as an example, Puzder wrote, "You cannot regulate your way to economic prosperity." His strong pro-management stance also includes an opposition to paid sick leave and, of course, Obamacare, which he said contributed to a "government-mandated restaurant recession." At a forum held by Senator Elizabeth Warren for CKE employees who were denied the right to speak at Puzder's upcoming confirmation hearing, many workers stated that they can't afford health care and go uninsured. During Puzder's tenure as CEO of its parent company, Hardee's came to a settlement with a group of 456 workers after the Labor Department found they failed to pay money owed for overtime.
Alastair Iles, associate professor and faculty co-director at the Berkeley Food Institute, is concerned that the overtime rule is particularly vulnerable to being reversed because it has been effectively placed on hold due to a court order since last November. "Puzder can encourage the federal government to stop defending the rule, to boost the prospect of this happening," Iles told MUNCHIES. "If the rule isn't judicially repealed, then Congress can try disallowing the rule under an obscure law—the Congressional Review Act—that allows Congress to reject rules within 60 legislative meeting days."
Experts fear other labor laws besides minimum wage and overtime protection will go by the wayside in a Puzder-run Labor Department. Of course, a massive company like CKE is quite unlikely to have a pristine history when it comes to labor-law violations, and CKE has without a doubt seen its share under Puzder's stewardship. According to a Bloomberg BNA analysis, more than half of Hardee's and Carl's Jr. locations faced wage disputes. Other lawsuits involved failure to reimburse managers for expenses, sexual harassment in the workplace, allowing an unsafe work environment, and more. While Puzder can't be held accountable for individual acts in CKE's franchises—after all, violations are common throughout the fast-food industry—his critics believe that his leadership sets the standard in a company he has run for almost two decades. In short, these violations bring into question how, as Labor Secretary, Puzder would enforce the same laws his restaurants have been accused of breaking.
Especially troubling to the countless women working in the fast food and restaurant industry is CKE's track record on workplace sexual harassment during Puzder's tenure as CEO. The rate of sexual harassment across the fast food industry is already high at 40 percent, according to Hart Research, which conducts research and public-opinion surveys—but a recent report by Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC), a non-profit, pro-worker organization, claims that two-thirds of female fast food workers at restaurants operated by CKE experienced sexual harassment at work.
Also troubling to some women's advocates is Puzder's support for Carl Jr.'s advertising, which tends to feature sexy girls in varying states of undress. In 2011, Puzder said, "We believe in putting hot models in our commercials, because ugly ones don't sell burgers."
MUNCHIES reached out to CKE, which declined to comment on Puzder's nomination. Regarding the ROC report that found rampant sexual harassment at CKE's restaurants, a CKE spokesperson said, "CKE strongly objects to ROC's deceitful survey tactics." The spokesperson, who preferred to remain anonymous, claimed that the survey was a "politically motivated attack piece."
CKE instead points to an alternate survey, by Employment Policies Institute, a conservative think tank created by restaurant industry lobbyist Rick Berman, which they say found that "the vast majority of those surveyed—92 percent—agree that Carl's Jr./Hardee's is a great place to work… with a majority of employees strongly agreeing that they feel safe and respected in the workplace." While EPI was created in 1991 with the stated goal of asserting "the importance of minimum wage jobs for the poor and uneducated," it has historically fought against minimum wage hikes.
Similarly, Elizabeth Johnson, a spokesperson for the Trump transition team, told MUNCHIES, "The Restaurant Opportunities Center survey—paid for by unions and special interests opposed to Andy Puzder's nomination—is a flagrant example of 'fake news.' In a deliberate attempt to smear CKE and Mr. Puzder, ROC used leading questions and deceitful surveying tactics, such as posing as CKE corporate representatives, to fabricate results that are the definition of 'fake news.'"
Women's and worker's rights advocates are unconvinced that Puzder will be a champion for either group. At the recent hearings held by Senator Warren, Christine L. Owens—executive director of the National Employment Law Project, an employment rights advocacy group—said, "Puzder at least partially credits the success of his fast-food empire with its highly sexualized commercials featuring bikini-clad models suggestively eating hamburgers. He brags about how 'very American' he finds these ads, which contain a parental advisory on YouTube, and notes that they have taken on his own personality. The message they send to women and girls across the country, including those who work at Mr. Puzder's restaurants, is that the commercial value of women and their bodies matter more treating women with dignity and respect."
In the opinion of several policy experts and fast food workers we spoke with, Puzder's most jarring statement about workers came last March when he visited Eatsa, an employee-free restaurant. In an interview with Business Insider, Puzder praised the value of machines over humans—and his quip made headlines. About the merits of using machines as fast-food workers, Puzder said: "They're always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there's never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case."
Unsurprisingly, this statement has worker-rights advocates up in arms. At a recent at a recent 32BJ rally in Manhattan, Margaret S. Chin, a Democrat and member of the New York City Council, said, "Our workers are of flesh and bone—not metal, not robots. They need to make enough money to support their family and they need to be treated fairly and they need to be protected against discrimination in the workplace." This was a sentiment we heard again and again among the experts we spoke with.
Patrick Baur, a researcher and food policy expert at the Berkeley Food Institute, told MUNCHIES, "Puzder argues that employers are turning to robots and automated machines to replace their workers because government labor regulations make it too expensive to compensate ual people on the job. Puzder is implying that deregulation will slow or halt automation by keeping labor cheap. Notably, the only two options Puzder presents for workers are (1) low-paying, uncertain, and exploitative employment or (2) no employment. That's not a very promising outlook coming from the proposed Secretary of Labor."
For many low-paid, low-skilled restaurant and food industry workers, Puzder's nomination has put them on notice: Speak up, litigate, or agitate about minimum wage, overtime, on-the-job safety, and sexual discrimination, and you may be automated right out of your job.
Shantel Walker, a NYC Papa John's employee and fast food veteran of ten years, told MUNCHIES, "As a fast food worker, I know what the Department of Labor is supposed to do: fight for workers. As a fast food CEO, Puzder doesn't care about workers. He's willing to replace us with machines. He's out of touch with everyday people. We are real people, not robots."