In her testimony at a January 10th forum featuring fast-food workers mistreated by the Carl’s Jr. restaurant chain headed by labor secretary nominee Andrew Puzder, NELP Executive Director Christine Owens once again outlined the extreme contradiction of the president-elect’s pick for labor secretary.
As Owens explained, Congress established the Department of Labor more than 100 years ago in order to separate the competing interests of commerce and labor in the federal government, which were originally housed in a single cabinet agency.
In its enabling legislation, Congress affirmed that the mission of the Department of Labor is to “foster, promote, and develop the welfare of wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.”
To many workers and worker advocates, the nomination of Puzder, a multi-millionaire CEO of a fast-food empire, represents a 100-year leap backward.
“So here we are 100 years after the creation of the Department of Labor, and frankly, at the National Employment Law Project, we fear that we are on the precipice of a merger of the interests of commerce and labor again,” Owens said.
“We are concerned, based on the public record of the many things he has said and his many appearances, that nominee Andrew Puzder will not bring that concern for the welfare of workers and make that his first priority on the job. His entire public life and his entire public record is precisely to the contrary and suggests that he elevates profits over the working people who create the profits and that he prioritizes commerce and customers over workers and wages.”
We are concerned that Puzder will not make the welfare of workers his first priority on the job.
Owens spoke before a forum hosted by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Patty Murray (D-WA), and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) intended to inform Puzder’s upcoming Senate confirmation hearing. She was joined by three former and current employees of Carl’s Jr. restaurants. Puzder’s company, CKE Restaurants, Inc., owns, operates, and franchises the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s fast-food chains.
One of the panelists, Lupe Garcia Guzman, who works the graveyard shift at a Las Vegas Carl’s Jr. restaurant, testified to her mistreatment by her employer and to Puzder’s lack of regard for the welfare of workers.
READ: Secretary of Labor Violations? The Low Road Business Model of CKE Restaurant Inc.’s Andrew Puzder (Report by ROC United) [PDF]
As with the other restaurant employees who attended the forum, Lupe’s story is the classic picture of a worker who suffers at the hands of an employer that pays poverty wages, commits wage theft, and violates basic labor rights like vacation and sick time and allotted breaks—exactly the kind of violations the secretary of labor is supposed to protect against.
After three decades of work in the food service industry and seven years with Carl’s Jr., and despite the fact that she does the work of a manager, Guzman only makes $8.75 an hour—just slightly more than the minimum wage in Nevada. As a single mother of six, she can barely scrape by on such low pay.
“People like Puzder don’t see how regular Americans are living day by day,” Guzman said. “They don’t know what we have to go through… People are hurting, people like me, families like mine who are struggling to survive on minimum wage. You can’t survive on $8.75.”
In his public commentary, Puzder frequently rails against meaningful increases to the minimum wage that would benefit workers like Guzman. Meanwhile, last year, he made more in a day than a minimum wage worker makes in a year.
People like Puzder don’t see how regular Americans are living day by day.
Like many Carl’s Jr. employees and other fast-food workers across the country, Guzman relies on public assistance in order to survive.
“I work almost every day and I’m still considered poor,” Guzman said. “I live on housing assistance, food stamps and Medicaid to survive. If I didn’t have these, I’d be homeless with my kids.”
In addition to her low pay, Guzman has experienced a long list of labor violations from Carl’s Jr. She reported to the committee that she is unable to take standard breaks required by Nevada law, that she consistently does not receive the full pay for the hours she works, and that she doesn’t receive federally mandated time-and-a-half overtime pay when she works more than 40 hours per week, or paid time off when she is ill.
Her experience is not isolated. Since 2009, Puzder’s restaurants were found to have violated wage and hour laws in 60 percent of Department of Labor investigations, and in California, a number of class action lawsuits are pending against CKE Restaurants on behalf of managers who were denied overtime pay.
The gravest offense committed by Puzder’s company against Guzman came, though, after she was held up at gunpoint in her restaurant.
Nobody from human resources asked how I was, because they didn’t care. That’s when I knew I mean nothing to them.
“I had a gun pointed at me twice,” Guzman said. “Corporate did not care what I went through. The second robbery left me shaking and throwing up and all they cared about was if anything was taken.”
“They didn’t say anything about my well-being. Nobody from human resources asked how I was, because they didn’t care. That’s when I knew I mean nothing to them. I’m just somebody to cover a shift that nobody wants. All they care about is protecting their money.”
Another Carl’s Jr. employee on the panel, Roberto Ramirez, experienced similar neglect from his employer.
Ramirez, who has worked for Carl’s Jr. for the past 18 years, described to the committee, among other abuses, how his paycheck was once stolen and cashed by a manager. When he reported the incident to a district manager, he was told that the restaurant was not responsible, and that he would have to work it out with his manager in court.
“After this incident, my hours were reduced, to the point that I felt forced to quit,” Ramirez said. “If Andy Puzder is confirmed as labor secretary, what happened to me at Carl’s Jr. would be multiplied at the national level.”
“Every single one of us deserves to live and work with dignity and respect. I hope that my testimony today helps forge a path towards a future with fair pay and dignity at work.”