Fast food workers will have more job security with new two-part legislative package.
At-will positions allow for employees to be terminated without notice or cause, and these positions make up the majority of the U.S. workforce – including professional jobs. Google software engineers, Wells Fargo & Co. bankers, and Mayo Clinic surgeons, for example, are subjected to at-will work. The only protected workers, in fact, tend to be part of the public sector, those affiliated with unions, or those in Montana (due to a rare state law). A new law in New York City will make at-will a thing of the past in the fast food industry.
In April of this year a federal judge in Alabama ruled that a silicon manufacturer was within its rights to fire a Black employee for refusing to cut his dreadlocks. Even though terminating an employee on the condition of race is illegal, at-will employment makes this much more difficult to enforce.
In 2018, Melody Walker was fired from her position at Chipotle after working there for more than a year. When she asked why, the manager told her she wasn’t smiling enough. “There were no customers there to smile at,” Walker said. Co-worker asked why she was leaving early, and she recalled, “They thought it was wrong, too, but what can they say? Because they’ll get fired, too.”
Walker began working with union organizers and local officials on a two-part legislative measure that makes termination more difficult in New York City. These laws, which take effect on July 5, will ban at-will employment at fast-food restaurants. Supervisors will have to provide ‘just cause’ to terminate, which means they must be able to demonstrate that workers have “engaged in misconduct or failed to satisfactorily perform their duties.” Workers who believe they’ve been unfairly let go will be able to pursue arbitration, submit a complaint to the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, or file a lawsuit in state court.
“This is just basic common sense,” said Brad Lander, the New York City Council member who helped ensure the legislation passed. “If there’s not a problem, you get to keep working.”
In late-May, the New York State Restaurant Association filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt overturn the measure, alleging it “discriminate(s) against employers and violate(s) their constitutional right to a trial by jury.” During a February 2020 hearing of the City Council’s labor committee, industry representatives warned that just cause “could force businesses to reduce hiring, replace workers with robots, and move out of New York.” Kathleen Reilly, government affairs coordinator for the New York State Restaurant Association, said, “The just-cause standard would mean the employer is guilty until proven innocent. That is contrary to American justice.”
Senator Bernie Sanders wants to extend the just cause action beyond New York City and make it a national standard, while advocacy groups are pushing President Joe Biden to issue an executive order mandating these protections for federal contractors.
Lander said, “Plenty of people have managers who are jerks. Everyone would want this protection for themselves, for their kids.” And he is especially determined to advocate for those disadvantaged.
“He is a true believer that progressive politicians can only be effective if they are embedded in and accountable to the movement,” says Ady Barkan, a former director of Local Progress, of Lander’s efforts. “Instead of just negotiating with activists and unions, Lander brainstorms with them.”
“The revolution (has to begin) somewhere,” added Kyle Bragg, president of SEIU 32BJ. “These workers were thirsty to be treated with respect.”