(BCN) — U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Fremont, hosted a roundtable with fast-food workers and the Service Employees International Union Local 521 in San Jose on Friday afternoon to discuss the fight to pass Assembly Bill 257 in California. The legislation, which passed through the state Assembly and is awaiting a vote in the state Senate, would bring together a council of fast-food workers and restaurant franchisees to discuss and address issues facing workers such as health and safety standards, wage theft and other workers’ rights.
Khanna, who represents the 17th congressional district covering parts of Alameda and Santa Clara counties, attended the roundtable at the SEIU Local 521 office, where fast-food workers from across California spoke out about their experience in the industry. AB 257, also called the Fast Food Accountability and Standards (FAST) Recovery Act, is also being supported by Fight for 15, an organization started nearly a decade ago that championed the increase to a $15 minimum wage in California six years ago.
Khanna hopes that the FAST Recovery Act could further push for pro-worker legislation, including a $15 minimum wage federally.
“We showed it was possible in California,” Khanna said. “What you do in California, the whole country is going to do.”
Crystal Orozco, a worker at McDonald’s in Sacramento, said that she grew up going to union events with her mother and saw how much of a difference the union made in improving her family’s life.
“I want those same rights that my mom got,” Orozco said.
The organization effort among fast-food workers in California, who are 80 percent people of color, 60 percent Latino or Latina and over 66 percent women, is particularly concerned with stopping wage theft. A report from Fight for 15 said that the vast majority of California’s 557,000 fast-food workers have reported experiencing wage theft.
“Over 425,000 workers aren’t getting what they deserve,” Khanna said.
The majority of the industry’s workers are also immigrants, a status which the congressman said companies have exploited because they can. Maria Bernal, who has worked at a Sacramento Jack in the Box for a decade, said that she experienced regular wage theft, including not receiving overtime pay. The loss of income forced her into homelessness, living with her children in her car and feeling unsafe.
When she was able to save up enough to rent a room, Bernal faced dirty conditions.
“My kids still have scars from the bed bugs,” Bernal said.
Bernal said she worked hard and sacrificed but couldn’t provide clean housing to her family on her income. Khanna, who hugged Bernal following her story, said that no one should have to go through what she went through.
“It’s shameful,” Khanna said. “And Maria, I think everyone needs to think of your story.”
Maria Yolanda Torres, a worker at a Subway in San Jose, faced wage theft for her sick time and was not allowed to go on breaks that are legally required when the store got busy. Torres also reported that tips were being taken out of her check.
“It’s happening every single day, and no one is stopping them,” Torres said.
Khanna said that the only way to address the issues facing fast-food workers was to allow them a seat at the table to bring their struggles to light through AB 257.
“You want a voice, someone who is going to fight for justice,” Khanna said.
Alondra Hernandez, who works at an Oakland Burger King, said that one of the biggest issues fast-food workers experience are acts of violence. Fight for 15 reported that more than 77,000 violent or threatening incidents at fast-food restaurants in nine major California cities were recorded between 2017 and 2020.
Hernandez has seen many incidents, including one in which a customer threw food at her co-worker and demanded money back. Hernandez said that her manager returned the money and that her co-worker was hit by a projectile from the customer, causing her face to bleed.
After the incident, Hernandez and others were scared to return to work and received no training for possible future incidents, she said.
“I’ve had nightmares seeing my co-worker’s face full of blood,” Hernandez said.
Perla Hernandez, who has worked in the fast-food industry for 13 years and for the past two years at a Burger King in Campbell, reported seeing a violent fight with a machete outside her workplace, but management told her not to call 911 and instead to continue working as to not slow the business down, Hernandez said.
Seberiana Reymundo reported that management has also ignored the health concerns fast-food workers face. Reymundo faced ridicule after being injured by a box of potatoes falling on her chest while working at a McDonald’s in Saratoga. When she asked management to move her from strenuous labor outside during cold winter weather after being diagnosed with liver cancer, her requests were ignored, and she faced further humiliation.
Reymundo said she was scheduled for fewer hours during worse times that prevented her from attending cancer treatments and interfered with her sleep. Throughout her reporting managers for unacceptable behavior, Reymundo said she continued to be ridiculed and encouraged to quit.
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Khanna said that the issues Reymundo faced were about dignity and humanity for all.
“Everyone here is an equal human, whether you are a member of Congress or whether you’re serving at a fast-food restaurant,” Khanna said.
Other employees, like Angelica Hernandez, said they faced retaliation after bosses learned about their involvement in union and labor organizing movements.
“We’re all suffering, but they don’t want to do anything,” Hernandez said.
Ruth Silver Taube, a lawyer and coordinator of the Santa Clara County Wage Theft Coalition, said that wage theft and other issues that fast-food workers are incredibly common. Taube said that the FAST Recovery Act could play a role in changing that by holding restaurants accountable.
“They’ll have no alternative but to allocate an adequate share of revenue to running safe, legally compliant stores,” Taube said.
Khanna ended the event by calling on the state Senate to pass AB 257 and on Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign the legislation into law as soon as possible. The congressman said that California needs to set an example in prioritizing workers’ rights and democracy for the entire country.
“You can’t have democracy and rights in America if you don’t have workplace democracy,” Khanna said.
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