As state legislatures in much of the country continue their drift rightward, California’s political leaders are stepping up their pace in crafting policies that run counter to these national trends.
On labor issues, AB 257, introduced last year by four Democratic members of the Assembly, aims to create a sector-wide council to establish minimum thresholds for wages, working hours, and health-related workplace conditions in fast-food restaurants.
AB 257, otherwise known as the Fast Recovery Act, is, at least in part, a reaction to a series of Covid-related scandals in the industry, in which workplaces covered up outbreaks and forced workers to report for work while still sick. A recent study by the UCLA Labor Research Center, for instance, found that only 47 percent of fast-food workers were provided with paid sick leave if they or a coworker tested positive for the virus.
The bill’s authors included the following language in the legislation: “Numerous complaints filed by fast food workers with local health departments and the Division of Occupational Safety and Health illustrate that fast food operators routinely have flouted protections, including, but not limited to, failing to provide adequate protection against workplace violence, requiring workers to work without access to personal protective equipment, denying workers sick pay, failing to inform workers of exposure to COVID-19, actively hiding COVID-19 cases, and demanding that workers come to work when they are sick.”
But AB 257 isn’t just about Covid. It is also a reaction to ongoing problems around wage theft and low wages within an industry notorious for its high worker turnover and reliant on often vulnerable workers, such as teenagers, undocumented immigrants, and people who were formerly incarcerated, among others. The UCLA researchers found that nearly two-thirds of fast-food workers, in a state with an estimated 550,000 such workers, had experienced some form of wage theft. They also concluded that retaliation was rampant against workers who reported workplace problems such as wage theft, Covid exposure, violence, or harassment. Meanwhile, nearly half of fast-food workers were struggling to pay for groceries for their families and a similar percentage were also falling behind on their rent or mortgage payments.
The bill is facing a series of make-or-break committee hearings in the Senate in the next weeks. To put pressure on the legislature to pass it, the SEIU, which has been working with fast-food workers in the state in recent years, is organizing a series of strikes on June 9, next Thursday. Thousands of fast-food workers in big cities around California will be walking off the job to protest their poor working conditions and to rally support for the Fast Recovery Act.
AB 257 is a potential game-changer for the fast-food industry. But it won’t solve many of the other problems low-wage workers in the Golden State currently face.
Average gas prices have shot past $6 a gallon in California, and, in some areas, have already soared well north of there, even hitting an eye-popping $8 a gallon in parts of Los Angeles. And, despite Governor Gavin Newsom’s promise to provide hundreds of dollars in rebates to vehicle owners, the legislature still hasn’t passed the needed legislation, and the money has yet to make its way back to Californians. As a result, drivers in the state are facing an unprecedented squeeze on their disposable income.
At the same time, an ever-worsening drought is forcing the state and local governments to enforce drastic cuts to water usage. And while some form of cuts is necessary, the impact tends to fall disproportionately on poorer residents when water rates go up as a way to enforce those cuts.
Last week, California mandated water agencies across the state to reduce their water usage by up to 20 percent . At the same time, many localities have imposed even larger cuts. Six million people in LA, Ventura, and San Bernadino counties are now facing a “water shortage emergency.” In response, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, for the first time in its history, is limiting outdoor water usage to one day per week. One water district in western LA has ordered water usage reductions of 50 percent and will impose large fines on customers who violate these restrictions.
All of which will make for an interesting election season in California. The primaries are next Tuesday—and, as of now, Newsom and the other Democratic statewide leaders are all but certain to secure their nominations for November’s general election. (Even with political anger about water shortages and high gas prices, it’s hard to see how Newsom loses that election.) But at a county level, especially in more rural parts of the state, it’s likely that, come November, right-wing populists will be able to tap into the discontent and fear in the same way that militia-aligned Board of Supervisors candidates did during the Shasta County recall election earlier this year.
Surveys by the Public Policy Institute of California show that the top five issues of concern for California’s voters are the economy (including jobs and inflation), housing costs, homelessness, high oil and gas prices, and water shortages.
AB 257, if it passes, will provide more job and wage security to hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers; but these other issues that are rankling voters this election season will still remain.