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Roberto Ramirez worked for nearly 18 years for the Carl’s Jr. burger chain in Los Angeles. He started doing food prep and eventually took on three additional jobs: cleaning, cashiering and serving. Little did he know his experience would one day land him in the national political spotlight.
On January 10, Ramirez was a star witness in a sort of “shadow hearing” on Capitol Hill on the business practices of one Andrew Puzder, the fast-food king who is Donald Trump’s choice for Labor Secretary. Democratic senators tried to give Ramirez and others with experience working for Puzder’s Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s chains an even bigger platform, as witnesses in the nominee’s upcoming confirmation hearing. Republicans nixed that request.
Originally from Guerrero, Mexico, Ramirez addressed about a dozen senators in Spanish, explaining through an interpreter how his workload at Carl’s Jr. eventually became so unmanageable he had to put in half an hour of free labor every day before his clock-in time to be able to finish all his duties. None of this overtime was ever compensated.
Ramirez testified that a manager later stole one of his paychecks while he was away and the company refused to help him recover the compensation. When he complained about it, his manager retaliated by cutting his hours to the point where he had no choice but to quit.
ramirez’s story was reinforced by a new Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United report. Based on questionnaires filled out voluntarily by 564 Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s workers, the report found that 28 percent of respondents had to work off the clock without pay because of understaffing. Approximately one-third reported a wide range of wage theft violations, including not receiving required breaks or overtime pay.
A high percentage of workers reported experiencing sexual harassment on the job—66 percent, compared to 40 percent overall in the fast-food industry. This is hardly shocking, given the behavior of the company’s CEO. Puzder is notorious for boasting about his sexualized ad campaigns, including raunchy spots for a Bacon 3-Way Burger featuring oiled-up blondes in bikinis in a pseudo menage-a-trois and another with a model rubbing a piece of bacon across her breast.
One female employee told ROC that customers have asked her why she doesn’t dress like the women in the commercials. Several others charged that store managers either ignored employee complaints about harassment or were perpetrators themselves.
Seventy-nine percent of respondents said they’d prepared or served food while sick, the vast majority because they had no sick leave. Ramirez admitted he’d also worked while ill, and felt bad about handling meat, knowing he might be making someone else sick. Another Carl’s Jr. worker at the shadow hearing, Lupe Guzman from Las Vegas, said she also had to work when she was sick, and when her child was hospitalized, she had to show documentation proving it—not to get compensated, but to avoid being fired.
Andrew Puzder has made no secret of the fact that he would like to codify his cut-throat business approach in federal policy. He is opposed to regulations on overtime pay, paid leave, mandatory break times, and a minimum wage increase. In fact, he’s so hostile to his human employees he’s waxed rhapsodic about replacing them entirely with robots.
Of course, this hasn’t stopped Puzder from accepting generous perks for himself. The ROC report points out that this devout opponent of Obamacare and mandatory sick leave policies has enjoyed reimbursement checks of as much as $61,000 per year from his employer for medical costs that run above and beyond his health insurance benefits. By contrast, only 9 percent of Puzder’s non-managerial staff have access to any employer-provided health care. As CEO, Puzder’s total compensation has run as high as $10 million per year.
“We need fair pay and dignity at work,” said Roberto Ramirez, his voice cracking with emotion as he read his prepared testimony. “I’m afraid if Andrew Puzder is confirmed as Labor Secretary, what happened to me will happen to workers across the country.”
Originally published in AlterNet.
Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and is a co-editor of Inequality.org.