Fast Food Labor Secretary?

David Beriss

In the weeks following his election, President Donald Trump announced the nomination of Andrew F. Puzder to lead the U.S. Department of Labor. There has been much discussion and commentary on this choice. Mr. Puzder is the CEO of CKE Restaurants, Inc., which owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s fast-food chains. Because of this background, much of the commentary on his qualifications has come from the restaurant industry, including the National Restaurant Association (which favors the nomination) and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (which opposes his nomination). There is also this commentary, which suggests that nominating Puzder is a way of overturning the entire history of the Department of Labor, leaving in its place conditions for workers that resemble “The Jungle” (the author of the commentary appears to be in favor of this outcome).

Hearings on his nomination are scheduled for February 2, 2017.

If confirmed, what sort of job will Mr. Puzder do? The Department of Labor’s mission statement is remarkably succinct:

“To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the 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.”

Perhaps the most famous Secretary of Labor was Frances Perkins, who served from 1933 to 1945. She was the first woman to hold a cabinet position (and a sociologist!). More importantly, she was instrumental in creating President Roosevelt’s New Deal, she wrote the Social Security Act, and fought for minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws. The Department of Labor’s headquarters building is in fact the Frances Perkins Building. This is where Mr. Puzder will work, if he is confirmed.

Will Mr. Puzder “foster, promote, and develop the welfare” of American workers? Or would he do more to promote the interests and welfare of industry? Are these necessarily opposed? One of the reasons people have raised questions about Mr. Puzder’s ability to fulfill the Labor Department’s mission is that his positions on many of the issues are well known. He has written and spoken a great deal about working conditions, wages, and benefits in the restaurant industry. Here are ten questions that seem worth addressing prior to Senate approval of his nomination:

  1. Wages: The call to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour has been led by fast food workers, the industry where Mr. Puzder works. The current minimum wage is $7.25/hour and has not changed since 2009. Some states and cities have raised their minimum wages locally, but there are also states that have no minimum wage, so unless the federal government raises it, they will stay at $7.25. The minimum wage is not a living wage for most American families. Mr. Puzder, who reportedly makes more than $4 million annually, opposes raising it. Is there a societal interest in making sure workers are paid enough to support themselves and their families or should wages be set strictly by the market?
  2. Overtime: The Obama administration tried to update overtime pay rules that define which employees should be paid overtime when working more than 40 hours per week. The salary threshold below which workers can receive overtime pay has not really changed much since 1975, which means that millions of people are essentially working longer hours for free. Puzder argues that they prefer this freedom over higher wages and thus opposes the new rules. He has also argued against California rules requiring rest and meal breaks for workers. Who benefits more from workers “flexibly” working longer hours for no pay: the workers or the companies?
  3. Sexual Harassment: Puzder has been criticized for his company’s advertising, which has featured bikini-clad women eating hamburgers. Certainly, there is nothing especially unusual about using sex to sell all kinds of products. Yet at least one recent report suggests that sexual harassment is significantly more frequent at CKE restaurants than elsewhere in the fast-food industry. What will Mr. Puzder do at Labor to insure that workers in all industries have a harassment-free environment?
  4. Health Care: Puzder has argued that the Affordable Care Act has driven up health care costs and triggered a restaurant recession. The existence of this recession is disputable (see this and this), but access to health insurance and health care is certainly an issue for restaurant workers. What will he do to help restaurant and other workers in food-related industries get access to affordable health care?
  5. Sick Leave: Paid sick leave is not a common benefit for workers in the restaurant industry. Food service workers often work when sick or injured. Legislation has been proposed in the last few congresses to allow all workers to earn paid sick days. This seems like an important way to improve the welfare of American workers. As Secretary of Labor, would Mr. Puzder support paid sick leave for all American workers?
  6. Immigration: One of Mr. Trump’s signature campaign issues was immigration: he promised to build a wall and deport millions of undocumented people. The restaurant industry uses a lot of immigrant labor, including undocumented workers, and Mr. Puzder has been a supporter of immigration reform initiatives that include a path to legalization. This position has caused much concern on the right. The National Restaurant Association supports immigration reform and argues that the industry needs immigrant labor. Will Mr. Puzder support immigration reform of the sort endorsed by the NRA or will he choose instead to support Mr. Trump’s policies?
  7. Unions: The Department of Labor has long worked with unions to protect workers in the United States. Mr. Puzder is on record as opposing unions and unionization, especially in the fast food industry (the unions, of course, oppose Puzder’s nomination). He has opposed efforts by the National Labor Relations Board to make both franchisees and corporations jointly responsible for wage violations and, as noted above, he opposes the $15 minimum wage, both of which are strongly supported by unions. One analyst has suggested that he might use his powers as Secretary of Labor to undermine unions, rather than support workers. Can an anti-union Secretary of Labor work to support the interests of workers?
  8. Tipping: In many restaurants, tipped workers receive hourly wages that are far below the already low minimum wage. They rely on tips to make up the difference. For some, this results in unpredictable and low wages. For others, this means that front-of-the-house workers get paid relatively well, while wages for cooks remain low. There have been efforts by activists and restaurateurs to address these issues, but it is unclear where Mr. Puzder stands. What would Mr. Puzder do as labor secretary to ensure that tipped workers and other restaurant workers are able to count on a reliable wage?
  9. Statistics: Measuring society in order to determine public policy is one of the key missions of modern government. Yet during the election, candidate Trump often cited statistics, including the unemployment rate, that seemed unrelated to any numbers produced by government agencies or anyone else with real data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, an agency of the Department of Labor, collects data and produces reports on everything from employment to prices. Will Mr. Puzder work to insure the continuity and reliability of this data? Or will he use the BLS to create “alternative facts” that support assertions made by the President?
  10. Experience: Puzder argues that increasing wages and improving working conditions in fast food will result in more automation and fewer jobs for people. But there is a lot more to the restaurant industry than corporate-run fast food chains like those led by Mr. Puzder. In 2016, restaurants employed 14.4 million people, with about 3.7 million in fast food. 70% of restaurants are single units, not chains. For most restaurants, the connections between customers and workers are an essential part of the business. Can Mr. Puzder advocate for workers—in the restaurant industry or in other industries—if his view of them is framed only by experience in large corporations?

3 Comments

Filed under anthropology, food activism, food policy, government

3 responses to “Fast Food Labor Secretary?

  1. dbgewertz

    Thank you for this. Is there time for a round-table (or whatever) at the AAA meetings concerning these issues? I’m sick at heart — all around. But the issue of reasonable pay for reasonable work so as to have a reasonable life means a lot to me.

  2. Pingback: On Food and Labor, Briefly | FoodAnthropology

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