Andrew Puzder has never been a big friend of labor, but he might soon become its biggest boss. As President Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Labor, the former chief executive of CKE restaurants, of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s brand fame, could soon control the regulatory body he’s been accused of flouting throughout his career.
Puzder has been linked to a smorgasbord of alleged labor abuses: Since 2004, scores of investigations by the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division resulted in penalties totaling about $145,310 in back pay for 877 employees, plus about $81,600 in civil penalties. Occupational-safety regulators also documented 32 serious health and safety violations, including workers getting scalded with hot water and hot oil and, in one case, being injured in a trash compactor. Meanwhile, in a survey by the advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Center, two-thirds of female workers reported experiencing sexual abuse while working for the corporation famous for smearing Paris Hilton’s midriff with hamburger grease.
Puzder, whose confirmation hearing has been delayed again amid controversy over his corporate background, has also publicly complained that minimum wages kill jobs, railed against labor regulations as an impediment to growth, dismissed the need for sick leave for restaurant workers and advocated for replacing them with robots (which, he boasts, are less injury-prone and never need vacations). As a corporate attorney and executive, he perfected the industry recipe for maximum profits: mass production to fill stomachs cheaply, assembly-line labor fueled by poverty wages, erratic work schedules, zero career mobility, and deep deregulation of state and federal labor protections, including anti-discrimination laws and corporate tax codes.
Maybe most disturbing, though, is that Puzder’s labor record isn’t out of the ordinary for the fast-food industry. His career is just a distillation of the current low-wage economic infrastructure.
The patterns of exploitation are intrinsic to a fast-food labor model powered by an increasingly degraded service-based workforce. Outsize corporate power and anemic regulations have left countless poverty-wage workers in chain restaurants deprived of union representation, fair work schedules and basic protections against racial and sexual discrimination — once the bulwark of federal fair labor standards. It’s the new status quo for an industry that has over the years, even under the Obama administration’s Labor Department, taken advantage of a tattered tax system, understaffed labor regulatory bodies and systematic degradation of unions, which are today representing record-low portions of the workforce.
Low wage levels (typical front-line fast-food prep workers earn less than $9 per hour) leave workers particularly vulnerable to exploitation. After all, in a state of continual economic disempowerment (which, ironically, fueled the populist angst that drove Trump’s presidential campaign), workers can’t be expected to challenge bosses when overtime pay evaporates from their time card or they’re pressured to work off the clock or risk losing the weekend shift they need to pay for rent and day care that month. But as the Fight for 15 — the labor campaign founded by fast-food workers — has revealed, the industry’s power imbalance intersects with many other forms of inequality. The fast-food industry disproportionately employs workers of color and women. On top of the industry’s generally exploitative labor conditions, surveyed fast-food workers report high rates of race and gender discrimination at work.
Because incentives to underpay workers tie into other commercial incentives to inflate profit margins and produce at ever-quickening speeds, abuses tend to occur in combination. According to a survey commissioned by the Fast Food Forward campaign, a majority of workers experience at least three types of wage theft together. Typical overlapping abuses could include being forced to work through a lunch break, being denied overtime pay for staying late, and then being ordered to come in early and work off the clock. (And if you complain, maybe the boss will punish you by taking your weekend shift away.)
An atomized workforce structure buttresses this overarching system of exploitation. The decentralized franchise-industry framework is typically based on individual owner-operators who contract with a fast-food chain through a managed production network. The system undermines workers’ ability to determine working conditions and pay scales, and it effectively preempts large-scale labor organizing. Since 2014, the National Labor Relations Board has been pressing a pivotal case brought by McDonald’s workers seeking to hold the company accountable as a joint employer for tens of thousands of franchise workers nationwide. The case could allow the entire company’s workforce to organize on the national level. But under the business-loving Trump administration, the labor movement faces a monumental challenge in holding any major corporation accountable for labor exploitation.
Meanwhile, the hidden victim of the low-wage business model is, ironically, the consumers who think they’re dining on the cheap, while they’re actually subsidizing the industry through their taxes. A 2013 study conducted by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley revealed massive public welfare costs for front-line fast-food workers, paid for with taxpayer funds. Nationwide, “more than half of the families of front-line fast-food workers are enrolled in one or more public programs,” such as food stamps or Medicaid, at an annual public cost of about $7 billion.
Under Trump, workers must depend even more on grass-roots resistance efforts and pressuring regulators to enforce the law at the workplace level, rather than relying on oversight from an administration blatantly allied with corporate power. Community-based workplace justice campaigns are pushing local legislation that would provide fast-food workers with alternative labor dispute mechanisms or boost municipal minimum wages. These localized protections clearly fall short of the nationwide regulatory overhaul that is demanded in an economy fueled by poverty wages and low job security. But in this fast-growing sector, workers need to build power from the ground up.
This is especially important when they face new Labor Department leadership that mirrors the country’s fast-food addiction: an exercise in self-sabotage. When weighing the assets Puzder may bring to the job of national labor boss, consider how much of his net worth might be robbed from workers’ paychecks and extracted from your tax bill. It’s a raw deal, any way you slice it.