California Fast Food Workers Demand a Seat at the Table
After over 20 years in the fast food industry, Evelyn Barillas says she’s seen it all.
“I’ve seen a lot of harassment, I’ve seen people get hit,” she said. “A person doesn’t like what you’re handing them and they’ll throw it at your face.”
Barillas is a single mom of four from East Los Angeles and works at a Subway in Reseda making $15 an hour. Prior to that she said she worked for McDonalds, Jack in the Box and Starbucks.
She said she’s even faced sexual harassment, saying one manager at a previous fast food job cut her hours after she refused to go out with him.
Across California, there’s more fast food workers than anywhere in America.
Barillas argues workers like her deserve more of a voice on their working conditions, things like store safety and pay.
“Our voice matters,” she said.
Evelyn Barillas, a Subway worker, speaks outside State Senator Dave Min’s office in Irvine on July 27, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
On Wednesday, Barillas was part of a caravan of fast workers that drove to the Orange County offices of State Senators Dave Min and Josh Newman to demand they support AB 257 – a bill workers say will give them a seat at the table when it comes to setting those standards.
They also made their way to the Taco Bell offices in Irvine, Chipotle offices in Newport Beach and El Pollo Loco offices in Costa Mesa to demand the companies support the bill as well.
The bill is expected to go before the state senate appropriations committee on August 11.
The aim is to create an appointed 13 member fast food sector council responsible for setting minimum industry standards on wages, working hours, and other working conditions related to workers health and safety.
To read more about the bill and the proposed council, click here.
Outside Min’s Orange County district office in Irvine more than 100 people including children showed up with signs that read “Justice for Fast Food Workers” wearing shirts that had the words “Unions for All” written on them.
Mauricio Juarez, who says he’s worked at a Jack in the Box in San Diego for eight years, told the crowd in Spanish that he works in the kitchen in 100 degree temperatures having to change his shirt multiple times and that his coworkers have fainted.
“Today there are half a million people who are screaming Justice – Justice for all fast food workers,” he said.
Mauricio Juarez a Jack in the Box worker speaks to protestors about his work experience where his workplace temperatures rose to 100 degrees; making it unbearable for some of his co-workers to perform their jobs. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
Kelly Jones, Min’s communication director, said in a phone interview Wednesday morning that the senator has yet to take a position on the bill.
“We’re still in the process of listening to a variety of stakeholders,” Jones said. “Without a position on the bill, I’m unable to offer any further comment.”
She later emailed the following statement to the Voice of OC:
“As a vocal proponent for the rights of women and all workers, Senator Min is committed to ensuring that workplace protections are enforced to the furthest extent of the law. The merits of a proposed council to regulate the fast food industry must be considered and weighed against how this ultimately advances our state’s nation-leading labor protections already on the books,” she wrote.
Newman in a text message Wednesday said he has spoken with the Service Employees International Union, proponents of the bill, about possible amendments to the bill to address concerns of franchisees while improving conditions for workers.
Sanna Shere, a franchisee in Southern California, spoke out against the bill in a June 28 opinion article in the OC Register.
“As (a) franchisee, I am responsible for day-to-day decisions in the same way my non-franchised neighboring business owners are. Hiring, pay, leave and benefits – these decisions cross my desk every day. If enacted, AB 257 would take these decisions out of my hands,” she wrote.
Franchises in California employ over 700,000 people, according to a report by the International Franchise Association.
California Restaurant Association President and CEO Jot Condie also spoke out against the bill in a statement last month saying it would harm “tens of thousands of counter service restaurants” and that the bill would strip franchisees of their independence.
“It would impose increased employee costs and onerous new workplace rules at a time when many are still struggling to get back on their feet after the devastating impacts of the government mandated COVID closures,” reads the statement.
“Many restaurants are struggling with labor shortages and increased costs for food and supply chain delays – all while trying desperately to stay afloat. We should be helping this vital sector of our state’s economy keep their doors open, not actively pursuing measures that would kick them closed.”
Meanwhile, Barillas said that the struggles of working fast food in California for workers like her include finding affordable childcare, paying rent and finding a balance between working and being with her children.
“We’re working up to two or three jobs because we have to maintain our home,” Barillas said. “We live paycheck to paycheck and by the time we get our checks the check is gone. It goes into rent. It goes into bills.”
To survive, Barillas also bakes and sells cakes, cleans houses and sets up balloon decorations for parties.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, the average hourly wage for fast food workers in California is $15.61.
Fast food workers aboard a van on July 27, 2022 getting ready to go the Chipotle headquarters in Newport Beach. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
Wednesday’s caravan was organized by the Fight for a $15 and a Union movement, Orange County Labor Federation, United Service Workers West and Service Employees International Union.
Otniel Pavia, a project coordinator for Orange County Labor Federation, said the federation joined the caravan to support workers and make sure their needs are addressed especially after the pandemic which he described as a time of uncertainty for these workers.
“A lot of folks got their hours cut, which meant that they couldn’t pay to put food on the table or rent. A lot of those folks resorted to a lot of safety net programs provided by the state,” he said about working conditions during the pandemic in an interview .
Pavia said that has stopped now and poverty is going up.
“We’re trying to make sure that the companies that during the pandemic were still cashing in and making profits are still looking after the workers,” he said.
“Legislation right now is the only way to try to level things out,” Pavia said. “Increasing the wage would help lower enrollment in a lot of those safety net programs that a lot of these folks depend on like Medicare and so this would ultimately be a better improvement in the quality of life.”
Ivonne Meneses, a mother who works at a Dominos in Huntington Beach, joined in on Wednesday’s caravan. She rents out a room in Santa Ana where she stays with her youngest kid, works a second job cleaning houses and frequents a food bank.
“We always have to fight for our benefits,” Meneses said in Spanish in an interview.
She said she gets burned often on the job and that she’s not allowed to put medicine on it till after work.
Prior to Dominos, Meneses said she worked at Jack in the Box.
Fast food workers march to the Chipotle headquarters in Newport Beach on July 27, 2022 as protesters chant “Hey Chipotle you cant hide! We can see your greedy side!” Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
Outside the Chipotle headquarters in Newport Beach, fast food workers from all over the state held their signs and chanted “Hey Chipotle you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side” and “What’s disgusting? union busting” as building staff blocked the entrance of the door.
None of the three companies responded to emailed questions about the bill and their stance on it.
According to a press release from a group called Fight for $15 and a Union, the bill – AB 257 – would ensure fast food parent companies provide enough resources to their franchises to comply with any new standards and hold the companies accountable.
Fight for $15 and a Union movement started 10 years ago in New York City when 200 fast food workers walked off the job to demand $15 and union rights. Since then the movement has expanded globally, according to their website.
The press release states the bill would also address sexual harassment and violence issues, safety violations, wage theft and other issues in the industry.
“In June, we held over 100 strikes throughout California. Through our actions in the streets and in the halls of our legislature, we are fighting back against exploitation. We are standing together and saying NO to poverty wages, dangerously hot temperatures in our kitchens, and harassment from our bosses,” reads an update on the Fight for $15 website about the bill.
A petition by Fight for 15 has garnered close to 65,000 signatures in support of the bill as of Tuesday afternoon.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.