“I was the victim of wage theft, exploitation, and of a stolen paycheck. I was never paid for time I regularly worked before clocking in. Every time I spoke up about the problem I was retaliated against by having my hours cut and my shifts changed.”
Those were the powerful words of long-time Carl’s Jr. employee Roberto Ramirez as he spoke in Spanish before a Senate forum this week. The treatment Ramirez tearfully described was illegal, exactly the type of abuse working people depend on the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate and remedy. But the man ultimately responsible for working conditions at Carl’s Jr. – the chief executive who built his personal fortune on the mistreatment of workers like Mr. Ramirez – is now Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Labor, charged with enforcing these very laws.
Andrew Puzder has been CEO of fast food chain CKE Restaurants, Inc. (which includes Hardees and Carl’s Jr.) since 2000. During that time, his company was a serial violator of key worker protection laws, even as Puzder himself spoke out against minimum wage, overtime, and sick leave rules, even expressing the wish that his employees were more like robots who would never take a vacation or sue him for racially discriminating against them.
On Thursday, Carl’s Jr. and Hardees employees across the country took to the streets with the Fight for $15 to tell the nation exactly how unacceptable a Labor Secretary Puzder would be. “If Puzder is confirmed as labor secretary, it will mean the Trump years will be about low pay, wage theft, sexual harassment and racial discrimination instead of making lives better for working Americans like me,” protested Terrance Dixon, a worker at Hardees from St. Louis.
A new investigation by the Century Foundation tracks 166 investigations by the Department of Labor into Puzder’s restaurants across the country. They find that 87 investigations revealed at least one violation of the law. Violations of wage and hour laws resulted in $145,310 in back wages paid to 877 employees from 2004–2016. Civil penalties totaled $156,377, and 1,563 workers were exposed to wage and hour or workplace safety violations.
The extensive record of legal violations should immediately disqualify Puzder from leading the agency responsible for protecting workers. Yet a survey of workers at Carl’s Jr. and Hardees suggests that the violations on record are just the tip of the iceberg. The Restaurant Opportunities Centers surveyed more than 500 employees of Puzder’s company finding that:
* Sixty-six percent of women at CKE Restaurants reported experiencing unwanted sexual behaviors at work, compared to 40% of women in the fast food industry overall, according to a national survey. Women working at CKE reported over 1.5 times the rate of sexual harassment reported for the industry overall.
* Due to severe understaffing in the company, almost a third (28%) of respondents worked off-the-clock. Approximately one-third reported a wide range of wage theft violations, including not receiving required breaks, and overtime pay.
* Seventy-nine percent of CKE Restaurants workers reported that they have prepared or served food while sick, this is higher than the rate in any of the cities we have previously surveyed.
If worker claims from the survey are substantiated, violations at Puzder’s fast food restaurants are far more prevalent than what has been identified and penalized so far. This suggests that much tougher enforcement of minimum wage, workplace safety, harassment, and discrimination laws is needed and the Department of Labor should devote many more resources for investigation of these crimes. While President Obama’s Labor Secretary, Tom Perez has made vigorous efforts toward better enforcement of workplace protections, further strengthening prosecution would be a fitting role for a president who campaigned as a champion of the working class. Yet Puzder’s business triumphs have come directly at the expense the same working people Trump pledged to help. Everything about his record suggests that Andrew Puzder would take the Department of Labor in exactly the wrong direction.