Opinions

‘Wage theft’ in the fast-food industry

OPINION: Imagine being pick-pocketed every time you show up to work.  For thousands of low-wage workers right here in the Bay Area, that’s the sad reality they face each day.  Their employers, mega-corporations in the fast food industry, are illegally downsizing workers’ paychecks in much the same way they supersize a meal.

A recent poll shows that nearly 90 percent of fast food workers have experienced wage theft.  But now workers are starting to speak out. 

McDonald’s workers in three states joined class action lawsuits to recover wages stolen from their paychecks when they were forced to work off the clock or were denied overtime pay.   Here in the Bay Area, I joined scores of community members at a local McDonald’s this month to support their call for fair treatment and a living wage. The outpouring of community concern echoes growing outrage nationwide as the consequences of the fast food industry’s low-wage business model have come to light in cities across the country.

I am proud to stand with these workers in their demand to change an industry that for too long has taken advantage of low-wage workers without regard to the detrimental impact they have on the communities in which they operate.

When the $220 billion fast food industry bloats its profit margins by squeezing pennies from its workers, the damage to our communities is profound:

Workers like SG, a mother of four who earns minimum wage, serve customers with pride at Burger King.  But at home, she struggles to put food on the table on her low wages.  Her struggle is made even more difficult when her paycheck routinely comes up short of the dollars she’s actually earned.

Dollars stolen from workers’ pockets go to the fast food giants’ corporate headquarters, siphoned away from our local businesses and economy.

Taxpayers are also victimized every time wage theft occurs, because when fast food giants short their workers’ paychecks, they also underpay their share of payroll taxes.

Taxpayers pick up the tab again when wage theft increases pressure on our social services.  Workers who can’t possibly survive on less than poverty wages must turn to food stamps or public assistance to feed, clothe, and shelter their families.  A UC Berkeley study pegged the tab taxpayers pick up because of low-wage, low-benefit fast food jobs at $7 billion annually.

I’ve heard from many fast food workers who were forced to work off the clock or had their paychecks shortchanged the overtime pay they’re owed under law. Hearing from the many wage theft victims who took part in the Oakland protests, it is clear that the industry needs to step up and become a real model of opportunity in the community.   

More Americans than ever are working fast-food jobs.  When the industry should be providing an opportunity for low-income workers to earn a living, they’ve instead fought workers’ attempts to organize for fair wages and working conditions by cutting hours or firing workers who speak up. To restore the trust of our communities, fast food companies should immediately do all of the following:

Respect workers.  Fast food workers are the engine of the industry’s profits, but their wages tell another story.  The fast food industry must respect the rights of workers to organize for fair wages and working conditions.

Respect the law.  Minimum wage and overtime rules are the law of the land, and corporate giants can’t operate outside the law.

Respect the communities where customers live, work, and eat.  Be a model of opportunity by providing quality jobs with a living wage and competitive benefits that allow workers to provide for their families.

I encourage all of you to consider how purchasing food from a mega-corporation harms the economic well-being of working families.   We all should agree that fast food workers deserve humane treatment and a fair living wage.

Eds’ Note:  Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, is chair of the Committee on Public Employment, Retirement and Social Security.


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