Donald Trump’s nominee for labor secretary
routinely stole from his workers and fostered an unsafe work environment in
pursuit of personal and shareholder profit, according to current and former
employees who spoke on Capitol Hill Jan. 10.
|Labor activists from the ‘Fight for 15’ and other unions offered support to the CKE employees and spoke out against Puzder’s record.
The allegations stem from Andrew Puzder’s more than 16 years as CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of fast food giants Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., where employees allege they were regularly forced to work off the clock, denied mandatory breaks and subjected to unwanted sexual advances from managers and customers alike.
The pressures, one former Carl’s Jr. manager said, “came straight from the top,” thanks to strict labor budgets for store managers that stretched staff thin, often requiring one employee to perform the roles of three or even four people.
“If you work for a living, this man [Puzder] is important to you,” said Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who invited the CKE employees to the Capitol to tell their stories. “The secretary of labor is responsible for protecting the interests of 150 million American workers,” she said. “He will be the person responsible for enforcing the laws that will ensure that employers actually pay workers for every hour that they work and setting standards to prevent workplace injuries and death. Unfortunately, Mr. Puzder is not the kind of person that American workers can trust to stand up for them.”
Driving her point home were three former CKE employees who spoke at a Democratic forum staged to look like the kind of congressional hearing from which they’ve been excluded by Republican Senate leadership. Despite pleas from Democrats, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander refused to allow the employees to appear at Puzder’s confirmation hearing, currently scheduled for February 2. The committee will hear from the secretary-designate and make a recommendation to the full Senate regarding his confirmation.
The hearing, along with a report from restaurant workers’ advocate organization ROC United, painted a troubling picture of the attitude Puzder and his company held toward working people.
Laura McDonald, a general manager at Carl’s Jr. stores in California from 1988 until 2012, described routinely working 60 hour weeks with no overtime pay and facing constant pressure from upper management to cut labor costs to unsustainable levels. She recalled spending more than an hour each day at home on the phone dealing with staffing issues or other pressing restaurant matters despite only being allowed to claim one hour per week of such work on company timesheets.
“Mr. Pudzer took a company that I loved and turned it into a business that makes money by stealing from its workers,” she said. “I honestly can’t think of anyone less qualified to enforce laws that are supposed to protect employees.”
McDonald’s remarks were followed by emotional testimony from Lupe Garcia Guzman, a graveyard shift leader at Carl’s Jr. on the Las Vegas Strip and single mother of six. Guzman described how difficult it is for her to survive on $8.75 per hour, a wage she hasn’t seen increase in nearly seven years while all her other bills have steadily risen. Management, she said, regularly docks hours for a 30-minute meal break that is supposed to be paid and often fails to record extra hours worked in the system, making employees beg managers to fix their paychecks later.
“I work almost every day and I am still considered poor,” Guzman told senators, several of whom could be seen wiping away tears. “I depend on housing assistance, food stamps, and Medicaid just to survive… People like Andrew Puzder don’t see how regular Americans are living day to day.”
|More than a dozen Democratic senators, led by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, heard from workers hurt by labor secretary nominee Andy Puzder’s company and its policies toward its employees.
Warren expressed outrage for the company’s behavior toward its employees. “That a giant corporation would build its entire business model around squeezing workers like you … and then count on the taxpayers to come up with the food stamps, to come up with housing assistance, to come up with Medicaid, to come up with all the help you need just barely to hold it together so they can maximize their profits – this is just not right,” she said.
Roberto Ramirez, who worked for nearly 18 years at Carl’s Jr. in Los Angeles, described regularly working off the clock, coming in 30 minutes early every day just so he could complete his regular duties to avoid discipline. But this “garden variety wage theft,” as described by Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, wasn’t the only indignity Ramirez was forced to suffer.
Shortly before he left the company, Ramirez requested a $150 check that was owed to him, but it never came. He later discovered that a Carl’s Jr. manager, who had been previously fired, cashed the check, pocketing his wages. The new manager told him the company wouldn’t reissue a new check and that he would have to take the matter up with the previous manager in court without involving the restaurant. “I was outraged,” Rodriguez said, “not for the amount of the check, but for management stealing from me.” He eventually dropped the matter without resolution.
In addition to the wage issues, all three employees described how they and their co-workers would routinely work while sick because the company didn’t provide affordable health care or paid time off, endangering not only their own health, but that of their customers as well.
The ROC report, released earlier Jan. 10 alongside members of the House Progressive Caucus, featured CKE workers describing regular sexual harassment, both from managers and fellow employees and from customers. The fast food industry as a whole deals with sexual harassment at a rate nearly five times higher than other businesses, but Puzder’s company stood out even within the sector. ROC’s study found that 66 percent of women at CKE reported unwanted sexual advances, over 150 percent more often than fast food workers at other companies.
Multiple employees surveyed attributed the excessive harassment to the chain’s advertising, which features bikini-clad women suggestively eating cheeseburgers. “Customers have asked why I don’t dress like the women in the commercials,” one Hardee’s crew member in Tennessee told researchers. Speaking to Entrepreneur magazine in 2015, Puzder said, “I used to hear, brands take on the personality of the CEO. And I rarely thought that was true, but I think this one, in this case, it kind of did take on my personality.”
Puzder’s public statements and positions on organizing, minimum wage and overtime protections are no less concerning. In a Business Insider interview last year, Puzder expressed his desire to replace human workers with robots. "They're always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there's never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case," he said. In 2014, he lamented that his company had to give breaks to employees.
The stories, taken together, are “a portrait of grinding workers into the ground and extracting every last dollar,” said Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, who attended the hearing alongside at least 15 of his Senate colleagues.
“It’s outrageous sitting and listening to all of you, thinking about someone who has been nominated as Secretary of Labor for our country,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. “It’s unbelievable when you think about that person, who is supposed to be advocating for you and for all workers.”
In addition to Warren, Kaine, Stabenow and Merkley, Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington, Bill Nelson of Florida, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Michael Bennett of Colorado, Al Franken of Minnesota, and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland attended the hearing.