California franchise owners fight fast food law
Brian Hom, franchisee of Vitality Bowls, helps customers. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    A state law meant to address working conditions among fast food workers could soon be stopped.

    The International Franchise Association (IFA), the world’s largest trade organization for franchise operators, wants to place a referendum on the 2024 ballot to repeal AB 257. The group announced this week it has gathered more than one million signatures from California voters to oppose the law. AB 257, also known as the FAST Recovery Act, was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September and creates a 10-member council to set standards for wages, hours and conditions in the fast food industry.

    Workers, who are often women of color, have reported ongoing instances of sexual harassment, wage theft and safety issues that led to Burger King employees protesting in San Jose last year. Proponents say AB 257 would allow workers to discuss and implement standards alongside government officials and business owners. Opponents argue the law takes away the autonomy of franchise owners, many of whom are also people of color, and that rising labor costs could lead to higher food costs.

    “The FAST Act is one of the single most damaging pieces of legislation for local restaurants and California consumers,” said Matthew Haller, president and CEO of IFA. “The state’s own data shows this bill isn’t necessary and that the quick-service industry is being singled out by special interests.”

    Brian Hom, a franchisee of Vitality Bowls, said worker concerns can be addressed using existing labor laws instead of a fast food council.

    Decisions such as increasing minimum wage should be made across all industries, like retail, instead of just the fast food industry, he added.

    “I know (employees) want better working conditions, better wages, but there’s got to be a better solution than just taking control and making all the decisions for the small businesses,” Hom told San José Spotlight.

    Rosa Vargas (left, holding banner) and other workers protesting in August 2021 at a Burger King on Almaden Road that has allegedly failed to address excessive heat conditions. File photo.

    Some fast food workers, however, say the state law acknowledges the working conditions that employees endure and a council could lead to reforms.

    “Currently, we’re invisible at work,” Perla Hernandez, a San Jose resident and Burger King employee, told San José Spotlight through a translator. She said workers face conditions such as extreme heat and smoke. “They treat us as if we’re robots. We have to do the work of two to three people.”

    Eddie Truong, co-founder of the Silicon Valley Restaurant Association and a San José Spotlight columnist, said the law’s approach to standardizing the fast food industry could negatively impact the majority of franchise owners who provide good working conditions. Many fast food franchisees are minority business owners who chose this model to have access to resources, he said.

    “Wage theft and other types of workplace harm is very real,” Truong told San José Spotlight. “The danger is when you create legislation that is a one-size-fits-all, and they impact the 97% of good operators out there.”

    The San Jose Chamber of Commerce supports efforts to repeal AB 257, said CEO Derrick Seaver.

    “By creating separate fast food councils outside of the National Labor Relations Act, the law creates a confusing patchwork for employers that could produce up to 24 separate labor standards throughout California,” Seaver told San José Spotlight.

    Workers’ rights attorney and San José Spotlight columnist Ruth Silver Taube said AB 257 has merit. Having a council that includes government officials, business owners and employees means serious issues in the fast food industry can be addressed, she added, and efforts to repeal AB 257 delay helping workers.

    “People don’t leave if they have a living wage, and the working conditions are conducive to their mental and physical health,” Silver Taube told San José Spotlight. “There’s so many abuses in this industry, and there’s literally no way to address them except by something like a fast food council.”

    The law required 10,000 signatures from fast food employees to officially establish the council, and advocates submitted more than 17,000 signatures last month.

    Concerns from franchise owners can be allayed by working alongside fast food employees on the council, Hernandez said.

    “My message for the mom and pop owners of some of these franchises is that we’re also moms and dads. We also have our own kids and our own families that we have to look over,” Hernandez told San José Spotlight. “This is why I’m calling on the industry leaders to treat their workers well.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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