The Austin Chronicle

Fight for $15 Protests Fast Food Working Conditions

Rallies come on heels of negative labor report on Austin restaurants

By Mary Tuma, October 14, 2016, News

During his first week on the job at the Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen on East River­side, Oscar Binzha says he felt like passing out. In a workplace said to be without a functioning air-conditioner over the summer, Binzha, a cashier, could barely withstand the sweltering heat. Assistant shift leader Jeymi Hernandez says the temperatures inside were even higher than outside, and workers cracked windows during the summer days for relief. "I would sweat through two shirts and had to constantly clean myself up," says Hernandez. "At a certain point, we felt like [Popeye's management] didn't care about us."

In an event organized by the labor rights group Fight for $15 Texas, Binzha and Hernandez joined fellow workers outside the local Popeye's location on Tuesday, Oct. 11, to strike for a better environment. Holding signs that read "Fried chicken should be sizzlin' hot, fast-food workers should not!" and "Popeye's: Cook Food, Not Workers!," employees denounced the "unbearable" conditions that affected their physical health as well as food preparation, while social justice advocates applauded employees for taking the bold step. Also present to show solidarity were Travis County Democratic Party Chair Vincent Hard­ing, City Council Member Pio Ren­ter­ia, and representatives with CM Greg Casar, who said the office is looking into whether the city may be able to intervene through code enforcement. As Fight for $15 notes, heat creates unsanitary and potentially dangerous working conditions. "Occupational exposure to heat can result in injuries, disease, death, and reduced productivity," according to the CDC.

The strike follows months of repeated unfulfilled requests to fix the kitchen's air-conditioning system, including a petition. While Popeye's told employees they would fix the issue next year, it was only after uniting that management finally assured workers that they will install a working A/C by Thursday, Oct. 13, when this paper goes to newsstands. Popeye's management declined to comment when approached for questioning from the Chronicle.

It's been an active week for Fight for $15 members. The organization also held a protest outside the McDonald's on Barton Springs Road and South Lamar on Oct. 6. Activists called on the popular fast-food chain to enforce its zero tolerance policy against sexual harassment as part of a national campaign in 30 cities across the country.

Amanda Healy says that within weeks of her first job at a pizza buffet restaurant at age 15 that she endured sexual harassment. "It's important for young people going into the workforce to be aware of this," she says. "It's so prevalent, and so many times people don't speak up. I didn't for a long time."

Now a food delivery driver, Healy was one of a group of citizens who protested for better protections against sexual harassment last week. On Oct. 5, McDonald's cooks and cashiers announced they had filed 15 federal complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging a range of harassments on the job, including episodes of groping and offers of cash for sexual favors. They claim many of these complaints went unaddressed or were met with retaliation. A study released last week by Futures Without Violence, the National Partnership for Women & Families, and the Ms. Foundation for Women showed 40% of women fast-food workers have experienced unwanted sexual advances on the job. It also indicated that 42% of these women feel forced to ignore the harassment because they can't afford to go without a paycheck, and 21% were met with some type of negative action after expressing their complaints.

"We talk to workers every day about their legal rights, but a lot of times they are not willing to file a complaint or a lawsuit out of fear of retaliation – and their fears are founded," says Aaron Johnson, an attorney with the Equal Justice Center, a local nonprofit that supports workplace justice for low- and moderate-income families. The threat of losing a job coupled with weak local protections (see "Without Teeth, Are Nondiscrimination Laws Effective?" May 27), make the situation more complicated for employees. "A lot of those working the fast-food jobs are barely scraping by, probably living paycheck to paycheck," says Johnson. "Even the most implicit threat from a boss can have a huge impact on low-wage workers. It's a real problem, and it keeps you from hearing about the majority of the problems going on."

The protests come on the heels of another alarming report: The U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division found federal labor law violations at nearly every Austin restaurant they investigated (95% of them) from Oct. 1, 2015, through June 30, 2016. Problems included forcing employees to work only for tips; child labor violations; and making illegal deductions. The Depart­ment helped give back more than $330,000 in back wages to 500 Austin restaurant workers. "The current level of noncompliance found in these investigations is not acceptable," said Dr. David Weil, administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, in a statement. "WHD will continue to use every tool we have available to combat this issue. This includes vigorous enforcement as well as outreach to employer associations and worker advocates to ensure that Austin restaurant workers receive a fair day's pay for a fair day's work."

Johnson says he's "not at all surprised" at the Department's findings here in Austin. A large portion of the Equal Justice Center's docket comes from restaurant workers who claim wage theft and other unlawful labor-related complaints. "It's an issue that's certainly rampant," says Johnson.

Both demonstrations are part of the larger effort by Fight for $15 to secure higher wages – at least $15 per hour minimum – better working conditions, and union rights, nationally and locally. The movement is gaining momentum in Austin, with protests held at City Hall (and support from CMs including Casar and Delia Garza) and the Capitol (see "Local Workers Strike for $15," Nov. 10, 2015). While City Council made some strides by implementing a wage floor of $13 an hour for city employees last year, Austin and Texas have a long way to go. Cities including San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles have approved gradually raising their minimum wages to $15 an hour.

Fight for $15 dovetails with the national Moral Monday movement, which frames living wage as not just an economic issue but a moral duty. Rev. Jim Rigby, pastor of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, attended both events and hopes to grow a stronger Moral Monday base in Austin. "The struggle is to start seeing the human equation in these economic issues," says Rigby. "It's about changing our mindset to see people being exploited as an ethical problem."

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