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Years of Sustained Pressure Are Paying Off for NYC’s Fast Food Workers

Collective action in action: Fast food workers have fought hard for the gains they have made.

NEW YORK, N.Y.— “We can now say that New York City is the first place in the country where fast food workers will no longer be at-will employees.”

That’s how 32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg reacted to the passage of two City Council bills on Dec. 17, prohibiting fast-food bosses from firing workers or slashing their hours without just cause and to mandate that layoffs be done in reverse order of seniority.

“This is a tremendous win for not only New York’s fast-food workers but also for all our essential workers, and for all Black and brown workers who have been denied the dignity and respect they deserve for far too long,” Bragg added.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said a strong, fair recovery starts with protecting working people.

“These bills will provide crucial job stability and protections for fast food workers on the front lines,” Hizzoner said. The mayor also thanked 32BJ and the bills’ lead sponsors, Councilmembers Adrienne Adams (D-Queens) and Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn). 

Intro 1415-A, sponsored by Lander, passed by a 39-7 vote. It defines just cause as “egregious failure by the employee to perform their duties” or “egregious misconduct.” Employers will also be allowed to fire workers under a written “progressive discipline” code for offenses within the past year, but will have to send them a written explanation specifying the reasons for their termination. If employers can’t prove that they had a just cause, the city Department of Consumer and Worker Protection or courts could fine them $500 or order them to give the worker back pay and benefits. 

Intro 1396-A, sponsored by Adams, was approved by 40-6. It requires that if employers lay off workers or substantially cut their hours for “bona fide economic reasons,” they do it in reverse order of seniority, protecting the workers with the longest tenure on the job. If new shifts open up, the employer will have to offer them to the laid-off workers first. 

The two bills define fast-food employers as chains with at least 30 U.S. locations, regardless of whether the outlet is owned directly by the company or a franchisee. Both would go into effect 180 days after being signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio. 

Intro 1415-A also states that employers should give workers “a predictable, regular set of recurring weekly shifts,” and inform them in writing about their schedule, both regular shifts and when they’ll be on call, before they start on the job and at least two weeks in advance afterwards. 

Opponents said the bill would hurt small businesses. “These reckless and unlawful bills will destroy what’s left of New York City’s restaurant industry, and force more New Yorkers into unemployment during this holiday season,” the Save NYC Business Coalition declared before the vote. “It is outrageous that the City Council would even consider legislation that would force restaurant owners and operators to hand over critical business decisions integral to their survival to a government entity.” 

 Councilmember Eric Ulrich (R-Queens), who voted no, told a Dec. 16 press conference held by the coalition that Councilmembers supporting the bill “might be afraid of the unions since some of them are running for re-election or higher office,” the Kings County Politics Website reported.

Fast-food workers involved in the campaign for the bill praised it. “If we’d had Just Cause laws in place, I wouldn’t have lost my job and my means of supporting my two kids as a single mother,” former Chipotle worker Melody Walker said in a statement released by 32BJ. She said she had been fired on the spot during a shift when “the manager told me to go home because I wasn’t smiling,” even though there were no customers in the store at the time. 

“I’ve seen so many coworkers fired just because a manager didn’t like them, or because a manager wanted to bring their own workers in, even if they were really good at their job,” said Jeremy Espinal, a worker at a Chipotle in Greenwich Village who was active in the campaign to win paid sick leave earlier this year and has had his hours cut. “I’ve spent countless sleepless nights worrying about whether I’m going to be fired for no reason. That fear has created so much stress in our lives and created a revolving door of high turnover in fast food. All that changes with today’s victory.”

 “Fast-food workers have been on the frontlines of this pandemic, serving their neighbors, working in tight quarters, taking on new responsibilities for sanitizing, and yet often unable to speak up about health and safety issues for fear of losing their jobs,” Lander said in a statement. “These workers, the majority of whom are women and young people of color, have fought hard for years to raise wages and demand workplace protections. 

 

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