Employers withholding wages, burns from fry oil, 12-hour shifts without breaks and needles left in bathrooms: Workers from Subway, Taco Bell and Burger King painted a bleak picture of life as an employee in the fast-food industry at a special Seattle City Council discussion July 11 at City Hall.
Councilmembers Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien arranged the brownbag discussion in response to the May 30 fast-food strike, when hundreds of employees walked out to demand higher wages.
Several workers said they’d experienced wage theft — when employers fail to pay workers what they’ve rightfully earned — despite the city’s 2011 ordinance making it a gross misdemeanor. Juanita Porter, who works at Taco Bell, said that on multiple occasions, employers refused to pay her for hours she worked based on the claim that her paystub was inaccurate.
There have been no prosecutions of wage theft in the two years since the law passed.
Workers also described severe health and safety violations. Larita McFall, who works at Qdoba, said after she was burned above her eye by 350-degree fry oil, her manager told her she’d be OK. Eventually, she contacted the regional manager. McFall said that the manager was shocked, that McFall hadn’t been sent to a clinic immediately.
Seattle’s mandatory paid sick leave law took effect in September 2012, but when Licata asked workers if they had been informed that they might be eligible for paid sick leave, many said no.
Rebecca Smith of the National Employment Law Project said that while educating employees of their rights is vital, many workers don’t want to speak up for fear that employers would retaliate by cutting hours, reclassifying employees or firing them.
“It’s a huge threat, it’s a huge fear, and it does happen,” Smith said.
Smith pointed to San Francisco’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement and wage theft prevention task force as a possible model for addressing Seattle’s enforcement problems. She added that the most successful efforts come from targeted inspections that lessen the burden from workers to file complaints.
Workers also spoke about feeling trapped financially, being unable to afford to go back to school, trying to support children while scraping by and walking miles in order to avoid paying for the bus.
Aaron Larson testified that his hours were recently cut so his employer could avoid providing benefits.
“I want to contribute more to the society I live in,” he said. “I love this city. I love everything about it. I just want to leave my footprint a little bit bigger than working at a Burger King that doesn’t give me any room for growth.”
Kshama Sawant, who is running for city council as a Socialist Alternative candidate against incumbent Richard Conlin, called for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
Neither O’Brien nor Licata indicated interest in raising the minimum wage, but both said they want to focus on enforcement and education.