News & Commentary

January 26, 2023

Miriam Shestack

Miriam Shestack is a student at Harvard Law School.

In today’s News and Commentary: CA law to improve wages and conditions for fast food workers faces a ballot referendum, OK meat processing workers reeling after a coworker is killed by police onsite, Democrats and advocates urge stronger child labor protection, and a new report on wage theft.

A California law seeking to increase wages and improve working conditions for fast-food workers has been stalled for the time being. State officials reported that an effort to overturn the law by major restaurant and business trade groups has qualified to be a measure on next year’s ballot. The law, Assembly Bill 257, sought to create a first-of-its-kind council of workers, corporations, franchisees and government representatives with a mandate to set wages and other workplace standards statewide.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, the announcement means the law, also known as the Fast Recovery Act, approved last year by the Legislature is suspended until California voters decide on the November 2024 ballot whether to repeal the law. The referendum seeking to overturn Assembly Bill 257 gathered sufficient valid voter signatures, the office of California Secretary of State Shirley Weber certified Tuesday. However, the signature-gathering process has been contested. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) California, which co-sponsored AB 257 and opposed the referendum campaign, alleged signatures were obtained fraudulently and filed complaints in October with the secretary of state and attorney general’s offices.

Fast-food corporations and business trade groups including In-N-Out, Chipotle, Chick-Fil-A, McDonald’s, Starbucks and the National Restaurant Association donated millions to support the referendum effort, according to the nonpartisan Fair Political Practices Commission. As Ben discussed last week, the National Restaurant Association has recently faced criticism for putting money that workers spend on mandatory food safety trainings toward political lobbying efforts that often undercut worker interests.

Workers at a pork processing plant in Oklahoma are reeling after a fired worker was shot and killed by local police at the plant. The Guardian reports that Chiewelthap Mariar, a 26-year-old refugee from Sudan, was killed by police officers while working at the Seaboard Foods meatpacking plant in Guymon, Oklahoma, on January 9. Another worker who filmed parts of the incident on his cellphone was later fired for doing so. The worker (who requested anonymity) claimed Mariar was fired from his job by a supervisor but was told by human resources to finish his shift. The worker said the supervisor who fired Mariar confronted him on the shop floor after he was fired, and police arrived soon after to escort Mariar from the site. The worker provided cellphone footage leading up to and following the incident and told the Guardian, “they made him out to be a danger when they said he had a knife in his hand, when it wasn’t. And that’s wrong on so many levels.” The worker claimed employees were told to keep working after the incident occurred. About 2,600 employees work at the Guymon plant, operated under a subsidiary of the Seaboard Corporation, one of the largest companies in the world with over $9bn in annual revenue. The plant was criticized during the Covid pandemic due to the high rates of infection among employees.

Recent analysis from Bloomberg reveals a divergence in priorities between Democratic lawmakers, worker safety advocates, and the Department of Labor (DOL) regarding child labor enforcement efforts. Democrats and safety organizations want DOL to go further in its child labor enforcement efforts by updating certain limits on the types of jobs minors can work, but the Biden administration says it does not have the rulemaking bandwidth take on such an update.

In the last four months alone, investigations have uncovered that at least 50 children were working with dangerous chemicals to clean meatpacking plants overnight, and that kids as young as 13 were manufacturing auto parts—reinforcing calls on the Biden administration to strengthen the rules protecting minors at work. The need for stronger rules protecting young workers is especially acute in agriculture. Under current rules, minors who are at least 16 years old may perform any farm job without limits, even during school hours. Minors who are at least 14 years old may work outside school hours, but not perform work deemed hazardous by the labor secretary. Kids working on farms owned or operated by their parents don’t have to follow those rules at all.

Jessica Looman, the new leader of the Wage and Hour Division told Bloomberg that the Biden administration would continue strengthening enforcement of existing rules, including through education and outreach to employers, but had no current plans to undertake new rulemaking efforts.

Lastly, a recent investigation by CBS reveals the prevalence of wage theft throughout the US. Wage theft can take many forms: paying less than minimum wage, not paying overtime, not giving tips to workers who are supposed to receive them, or misclassifying workers as independent contractors while treating them like hourly employees. According to one estimate from the nonprofit think tank Economic Policy Institute, reported and unreported wage theft could amount to as much as $50 billion per year owed to workers. Facing a disjointed patchwork of enforcement mechanisms which are often slow or downright ineffectual, workers are often left with little recourse. Worker centers, which organize workers outside traditional union structures, are leaders in supporting workers facing wage theft.

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