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June 25, 2022

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85% of California fast-food workers have experienced wage theft, study finds

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When Alicia Lara picked up a second job and started working at the Jack in the Box in North Highlands, California in 2018, she regularly found herself forced to work through legally mandated breaks.

“When I needed a break I’d go to the manager but they wouldn’t give me any of my paid breaks,” Lara said through a translator. “We were understaffed, so we had to keep working.”

It’s a form of wage theft, experienced by thousands of low-paid workers in the state’s fast-food industry, according to a new survey released last week by the Service Employees International Union through its Fight for $15 and a Union campaign.

At least 85% of workers surveyed said their employer had failed to pay them what they were owed through at least one form of wage theft.

Lara ultimately received about $3,000 in back pay, following a series of worker strikes at the restaurant last summer. Initially protesting the lack of functioning air conditioners, Lara and her coworkers later walked out during the lunch rush to demand more than $184,000 in wages they said they were underpaid.

More than half of survey respondents said they had been shorted by more than one form of wage theft — such as failing to pay overtime, paying less than the minimum wage, asking workers to work off-the-clock, denying rest and meal breaks, and failing to provide paid sick leave, among others.

The findings suggest that about 425,000 fast-food workers in California are not being paid what they are owed, with people of color, immigrant communities and women disproportionately impacted because of their over-representation in the industry.

The SEIU survey, which interviewed more than 410 fast-food workers in 86 cities, was conducted between January and March. Workers represented more 44 different brands, including McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr. Burger King, Subway, KFC, Taco Bell and Jack in the Box.

The union is co-sponsoring a bill, known as the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act, that leaders say would help address flagrant labor violations in the industry.

Assembly Bill 257 would make California the first state to establish a Fast Food Sector Council, setting pay and workplace standards, and holding large corporations liable when franchisees break labor laws.

Fast-food industry groups, including the California Restaurant Association and the International Franchise Association, have opposed the bill, arguing it would unfairly target chain restaurants and raise consumer prices.

Jeff Hanscom, vice president of state and local government relations at the International Franchise Association, said in a statement that California has “one of the most rigorously regulated restaurant sectors in the world.” The state should be focused, then, on enforcing existing laws to address “bad actors.”

“While the issues experienced by these 410 employees should not be discounted, this survey is only representative of less than .0008% of the 500,000 quick service restaurant employees in California,” Hanscom said in a statement.

SEIU leaders argue that systemic factors have allowed fast-food companies to get away with labor violations, such as the franchise model, which exempts corporations from liability on employment issues. Meanwhile, workers have few options to recover unpaid wages, and risk punishment from managers and owners for speaking out, like docked hours.

Nearly a third of workers interviewed in the Fight for $15 campaign’s survey said they had been retaliated against for asking to be paid properly, taking a sick day, or asking to be paid for a sick day.

“It’s important for all our voices in the fast-food industry to be listened to and to be heard,” Lara said. “So many of us are afraid to speak up.”

A 2017 study from the Economic Policy Institute estimated that employers steal more than $15 billion each year from U.S. workers’ paychecks through minimum wage violations.

Workers experiencing minimum wage violations were underpaid an average of $64 per week, the study estimated, or about $3,300 annually for full-time, year-round workers.

“For many low-income families who suffer wage theft, the resulting loss of income forces them to rely more heavily on public assistance programs, unduly straining safety net programs and hamstringing efforts to reduce poverty,” authors David Cooper and Teresa Kroeger wrote in the 2017 study.

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