For fast-food workers, who already earn low wages and often work multiple jobs to make ends meet, abrupt firings represent an existential threat. In interviews with the New York Times, workers said they’ve been fired for a number of banal or even potentially discriminatory reasons. Melody Walker told the newspaper that her Chipotle manager fired her for “not smiling enough.” Princess Wright, who worked in fast food while attending Mercy College in the Bronx, was fired after giving her manager prior notice that she wouldn’t be able to make her shift. One woman was fired from her job at Arby’s after she showed up 30 minutes late to her shift. She had a compelling reason for her tardiness: She’d survived a domestic violence dispute.
These stories aren’t surprising, as U.S. employment law tends to tilt power in favor of management. New York, for example, is an at-will state, so employers can fire workers for nearly any reason that doesn’t violate federal, state, or city anti-discrimination protections. Unless a manager explicitly cites discriminatory justifications for a termination, it can be difficult for a worker to prove that they’ve been fired in a way that violates the law, and doing so can require time and money for legal fees, resources that often aren’t available to low-wage workers. According to a report released jointly by the activist coalition behind Wednesday’s bill, fast food workers “frequently cited favoritism and racial discrimination as sources of unfair treatment from managers.” That bias, they said, could manifest itself in “frivolous” reasons for a termination, like overly long nails or a seeming reluctance to smile.
New legislation, introduced by New York City Council members Brad Lander and Adrienne Adams on Wednesday, would make it more difficult for managers to fire fast-food workers for reasons other than misconduct or poor performance — in other words, no termination without just cause. The bill doesn’t only require justification for outright firings, but for slashing a worker’s hours by 15 percent or more, a practice that can plunge a low-wage worker into dire financial circumstances. The bill’s expansive provisions build on the success of the Fight for 15 movement to raise the minimum wage, and it could set a new nationwide labor precedent for low-wage workers.
Unions typically bargain contracts that protect workers from arbitrary termination. A union member can expect to receive warning before they’re fired, often in the form of a probationary period or a series of warnings that flag poor performance. The goal, in other words, is to give workers a reasonable chance to improve before they lose their livelihood. (Access to rights and protections like just cause may help explain why union membership appears to narrow the racial wealth gap, as research from the Center for American Progress has previously found.) Most fast-food workers, however, don’t formally belong to a union, which can leave them out in the cold if they’re fired or have their hours drastically cut by a hostile manager.
Fast-food workers will measurably benefit from just-cause legislation, but some industry representatives view the reform as a threat, with far-reaching implications for the way business owners currently operate. Michael Saltsman, managing director for the Employment Policies Institute, complained to the Times that SEIU, which funds the Fight for 15 campaign, is “putting in place a strategy that starts in New York but doesn’t end in New York.” There may be some truth to his statement. Just-cause protections for fast-food workers might start in New York City, but the bill that Lander and Adams introduced addresses a problem that’s common in the industry. There’s no reason to think that activists in other locations won’t soon begin to push for similar measures.
By successfully expanding workplace rights like a fair wage to workers in multiple cities and states, Fight for 15 established a model for national action. This week, in fact, Illinois may become the fifth state to pass legislation that would raise its minimum wage to $15; New Jersey also recently did the same. Low-wage workers haven’t just organized for a higher minimum wage, either. They’ve also campaigned for paid leave, regular hours, and now severance. Workers at Toys-R-Us organized to demand severance pay after the company shut its doors and laid off staff; workers at Sears are now organizing with the same demand. The state of New Jersey may soon pass a bill that would require businesses laying off 50 or more employees to provide severance and to increase the amount of notice given before layoffs commence, HuffPost reported on Tuesday. The New Jersey Chamber of Commerce isn’t thrilled about the bill, but its passage would be another victory for workers.
These victories do come at the expense of management and a company’s bottom line. But in the U.S., employers wield enormous power over the lives of workers. Without union membership, salaried and hourly workers typically have little recourse when an employer cuts their shifts or fires them. American workers aren’t federally guaranteed paid leave, even for illness or new parenthood, and while some states have increased their minimum wages, the federal minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with inflation. Large corporations like McDonald’s, meanwhile, do have the means to provide fair wages and paid leave if they choose. The Guardian reported that Walmart CEO Doug McMillon earned $22.8 million in 2017; the median Walmart worker, meanwhile, earned a scant $19,177 per year. The ratio of CEO to worker pay has actually increased in recent decades — in line with other national inequality trends. Given these circumstances, it isn’t exactly shocking that workers are demanding not only the fairer distribution of profit, but of power too.