A crowd of people in seats at a San Jose City Council meeting
Fast-food workers and allies at the San Jose City Council meeting on March 19, 2024. Photo courtesy of Isabel Urbano, SEIU.

Dozens of fast-food workers flooded the San Jose City Council chambers on Tuesday, demanding their representatives pass a policy to expand workers rights.

Workers asked councilmembers to include a rule that enables fast-food workers in the city to accrue paid time off and get a paid day for an annual training that educates workers on their rights and benefits, as part of the city’s upcoming budget. The hope was that by securing dollars in the budget, it would ensure a policy is drafted and passed. The council did not include the workers’ request in the Tuesday budget discussion.

“What we’ve heard so far was talking points that the ordinance will be very expensive, and it will be costly to enact and that these businesses will move out of San Jose,” said Brandon Dawkins, vice president of SEIU Local 102. “I beg to differ.”

He said the roughly 13,000 fast-food employees in San Jose deserve to know how to protect themselves from harassment and retaliation on the job. They also deserve to know their rights — that they are allowed to take a break and time off.

A recent report released by Step Forward Foundation and the California Fast Food Workers Union, SEIU found 88% of workers surveyed were unable to correctly answer a majority of questions about basic workplace rights, including paid sick leave, hours of work, overtime pay, meal periods and rest breaks. And 93% of workers surveyed had not heard about or did not know how to access most key benefits and programs they or their families may be entitled to.

Several fast-food workers shared heartbreaking stories of harassment on the job. Burger King employee Laura Reyes said she was forced to work while having a miscarriage.

“For them, our lives are not important, but for our children they are,” Reyes told councilmembers, fighting back tears. “This is why I’m here — in hopes that I may be able to count on your support, that they give us training to all of the workers so that we know how to defend ourselves and not to have to go through unfortunate things.”

Another worker, Deysi Gomez, said she was fired from her job at Carl’s Jr. because she stood up for herself after her employer made her work extra hours and through breaks.

“They did not give me the opportunity to defend myself and up to now I still do not know the reason why I was fired,” Gomez said in Spanish through a translator.

Workers and advocates told San José Spotlight that Tuesday’s actions were intended to put pressure on the council, as city officials work to draft policy, which does not hinge on budget approval.

Jefferey Buchanan, policy director of Working Partnerships USA, said this policy has yet to be drafted and it’s unclear when it would come to the full council.

“There is an ongoing discussion with councilmembers and the administration on the best way and time to bring forward a successful ordinance to provide critically needed ‘know your rights’ training to workers,” Buchanan told San José Spotlight.

San Jose City Council meeting attendees stand in support of a policy to enable fast-food workers to accrue paid time off and get a paid day for annual rights training. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Buchanan.

Working Partnerships USA and several unions have held meetings with city officials since last fall in hopes of bringing forward such a policy. It has garnered support from various unions, as well as advocacy groups like Amigos de Guadalupe.

In response, a number of new lobbyists have registered in San Jose to support fast-food corporations and franchisees.

McDonald’s Corporation registered its in-house lobbyist, Jessica Lynam, with the city. A coalition called Save Local Restaurants, which includes major franchise groups, hired prolific lobbyists Leslee Guardino and Jim Cunneen to lobby against the potential policy. Silicon Valley Advisors’ Pete Carrillo is now representing Willco Management, an owner of numerous McDonald’s locations.

Many of those same corporations contributed to The Strong Economy Silicon Valley PAC, which donated $18,000 via the Silicon Valley Biz PAC for digital ads in the March 5 primary election.

Several franchisees also spoke at the council meeting, noting the proposed policy will be costly and force them to close shop in San Jose.

Kathy Fairbanks, who is part of the Save Local Restaurants Coalition, said many local franchisees have already laid off employees or cut back on hours because of the passage of Assembly Bill 1228 — which raises the minimum wage for fast-food workers to $20 per hour starting in April.

“I think any restaurant owner you speak with would say, I value my employees and I want to do what’s right by them. I want to give them the highest wage I possibly can,” Fairbanks told San José Spotlight. “But the $20 an hour comes with some trade offs that could be bad for workers, like reduced hours or the restaurant possibly shutting down altogether.”

The bill also creates a fast-food council of nine members that will hold public meetings at least every six months to focus on issues of fast-food restaurant health, safety and employment conditions.

“We don’t need the city of San Jose to pass a local ordinance when we’ve got the statewide council doing the same thing,” Fairbanks said. “No. 1: It’s duplicative. No. 2: what if each law is a bit different? We can’t have conflicting and confusing regulations.”

Councilmembers such as Bien Doan and Dev Davis also appear hesitant to approve the policy because they believe the state will be equipped to handle fast food worker concerns with the new council.

“There is a law coming down from the state and we should let it play out,” Doan said at the meeting. “It doesn’t mean that we ignore or don’t care about you.”

Contact Jana at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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