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‘Just Cause’ Bills – The Next Game-Changer for Low-Wage Workers Everywhere

Kyle Bragg, president, 32BJ SEIU urges passage of “Just Cause” legislation.

New York, NY – If enacted, “Just Cause” legislation newly introduced in the New York City Council could help further change the way fast food workers — and all all other low-wage earners — live and work in this town.

Already buoyed by a hard-fought for new minimum wage, Fair Work Week regulations relating to scheduling and mandatory paid sick days, fast food workers aligned with 32BJ SEIU are now spearheading a campaign to shield hard-pressed employees from being arbitrarily axed on the job. 

City Council Member Brad Lander’s Intro. 1415 has 32 sponsors and seeks to prohibit fast food bosses from capriciously canning employees they don’t like, while City Council Member Adrienne Adams’ Intro 1396 has 34 sponsors and demands that when lawful layoffs do occur, they only happen based on seniority — meaning those hired last will be discharged before those who’ve been on the job longer. 

“We need to do more to address the constant threat of joblessness that workers in the industry still face,” 32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg said ahead of Thursday’s Committee on Civil Service & Labor hearing. “We are dealing with a broken system creating uncertainty and sky high turnover. When fast food workers speak out, organize or report abuse, they become even more vulnerable to their employers.”

Fired Chipotle worker Melody Walker saw her work schedule whittled down to as little as 8 hours a week, before being let go in August, 2017, less than a year on the job.

“I did my job well and made sure I arrived early for my shift,” the mother of two said last week. “I was hopeful I had a stable job and income to support family. Things changed when a new manager took over the store.”

Fired Chipotle worker Melody Walker speaks out on the steps of City Hall.

According to Walker, the new boss started hiring on new workers even as he was cutting the hours of existing employees. 

“Things were so bad that I had to go on unemployment while I was still working,” Walker added. “It is crazy that anyone should have to get public benefits while working for a company that makes billions of dollars a year.”

Another Chipotle worker who was unceremoniously fired after three years on the job tried to appeal his termination at the corporate level, only to be told the corporation “reserves the right” to do whatever it wants.

“They fire us like we’re pieces of garbage,” he said. 

People of color make up the overwhelming majority of fast food workers. Two thirds of them are women and immigrants.

“We know that big corporations use the constant threat of firing and economic devastation that will follow to keep workers from banning together and to enforce their rights when companies break the law,” Alyssa Peterson,  Liman Fellow at the Center for Popular Democracy said. “By sowing fear, the at will model leaves workers vulnerable to wage theft, injury and sexual harassment. We need ‘Just Cause’ legislation to ensure basic fairness at work.”

Chipotle has been in hot water for the last several years. In New York City, it has had to fend off more than a million dollars in fines for allegedly violating Fair Work Week regulations, in addition to facing federal charges it illegally sacked pro-union employees in Manhattan. In 2016, an NLRB judge ordered the company offer to rehire a Philadelphia man who was fired after criticizing Chipotle on Twitter.

Jeremy Espinal was fired from his Chipotle job after attempting to organize fellow workers into 32BJ SEIU.

A year earlier, outbreaks of food-borne illnesses at Chipotle outlets across the country began cropping up sickening hundreds. A newly-released report from the National Consumers League and 32BJ SEIU contends that bad management practices and worker abuses are endangering customer safety. 

Chipotle has not responded to requests for comment.

“You can imagine the ways in which inadequate staffing and mistreatment of staff can wreak havoc with food preparation,” Council Member Mark Levine said last week. 

Council Member Lander called “Just Cause” legislation “pretty basic protection” and the “existing standard in almost every union contract.”

That said, it’s taken a year for the pro-labor “Just Cause” bills to finally get a hearing. 

“I’m glad we’re finally getting a hearing,” Lander told LaborPress. “[City Council Speaker Corey Johnson] is a supporter. We’ve had a lot going on over the last year, so there are a range of reasons why it took awhile. I’m sure there will be some adjustments and amendments, but I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to pass the legislation in the coming months.”

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