California Fast-Food Giants Dodge Liability for Labor Lapses

Bloomberg Industry | August 26, 2022
  • Corporate chain responsibility stripped from legislation
  • Bill to better fast-food work conditions must pass by Aug. 31

McDonald’s and other fast-food corporations won a major concession in the California Assembly as the authors of a bill to address labor violations scaled back legislation that had sought to hold the companies liable for franchise misdeeds.

Assemblymember Chris Holden (D), the bill’s author, agreed to strip from the measure (A.B. 257language that would have required the franchise companies to share responsibility when quick-service restaurants break labor laws. That concession may pave the way for the legislation to proceed toward final passage before the Assembly and state Senate adjourn for the year on Aug. 31.

The effort to penalize companies for payday shortfalls and unsafe conditions at locations they don’t directly run has been a sticking point in the usually labor-friendly, Democratic Party-led legislature.

As introduced, the corporate chains could have been “held liable for the sins of their franchisees in a much easier fashion,” said Timothy Long, a labor and employment attorney in Greenberg Traurig LLP’s Sacramento office.

“The question here is, is the franchisor also responsible?” asked Sen. Tom Umberg (D), who opted not to vote when the bill was considered in the Judiciary Committee.

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The restaurant lobby said it will continue to oppose the bill even if the liability language change offered Thursday is approved by a committee and makes it back to the Senate floor.

Wage violations and other wrongdoing is less prevalent in food service than in other industries, and “no amount of amendments will fix this bill as the underlying premise is false,” Jot Condie, president and CEO of the California Restaurant Association, said in a written statement.

Even without the joint liability provision, the legislation would make significant changes to state law, authorizing the creation of a special board to set the statewide regulations on minimum wages, maximum work hours and other conditions in fast-food establishments.

“Workers are well-positioned to win more influence in an industry that has fought tooth and nail to ignore their demands and diminish their power,” April Verrett, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, said in a written statement.

The proposed 10-member council could be set up only after at least 10,000 fast food employees sign a supporting petition. It would include government officials, fast-food workers, franchise owners, and corporate chain representatives.

Holden and backers including SEIU and the Fight for $15 campaign have said that having a role in the regulatory decisions could help the people who flip burgers and staff the drive-throughs. It also might inspire similar initiatives for other industries that rely on low-wage labor—agriculture, perhaps, or health care.

The measure would apply to fast-food restaurants that are part of a chain with 100 or more locations. Outlets located within grocery stores would be exempted.