On Thursday, the City Council will discuss two bills intended to protect the rights of non-union fast food workers. One proposal from City Councilmember Adrienne Adams would require that fast food workers be laid off in inverse seniority when an employee needs to make staff cuts, i.e. those hired last will be discharged first. A second "Just Cause" bill from Councilmember Brad Lander would prohibit fast food employers from firing a fast food employee without just cause, and create arbitration guidelines to mediate disputes between employers and fast food workers.
Ahead of today's hearing, we are sharing the following op-ed from Princess Wright and Sonia Martinez, two fast food workers (one current, one former) about what they hope the legislation would do for the industry:
Fast food workers are on the front lines of New Yorkers’ lives. We interact with people before they’ve had their morning coffee, when they are grumpy and stressed in the middle of the day, and after they’ve had too much to drink late at night. We deal with people who see straight through us as if we weren’t human, and people who give us way too much of the wrong kind of attention. We cope with low wages, dangerous conditions, high stress, and little to no job protections.
But we’re also on the front lines of the fight for better jobs. Fast food workers here in New York City started the movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. We fought for fair scheduling, advance notice of our hours and an end to back-to-back closing and opening shifts. And on Thursday we will be at City Hall, testifying to lawmakers about why we deserve to be protected from being fired without just cause.
So many of us have a story to tell about the day we woke up with a job, and came home without one—with no notice, no reason, nothing more than an arbitrary decision by a manager that left us with bills to pay and no paycheck coming.
Two days before Thanksgiving in 2018, Princess was unexpectedly fired from her job at the McDonald’s on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.
The day before, she’d called her boss to explain that she needed to miss her shift because her landlord had a personal emergency and needed her to babysit. Her manager was sympathetic on the phone—Princess had a good reason that she couldn’t make the shift and was giving him enough notice to find someone else. But when she walked into work the next day, she was fired.
Getting fired without warning is extremely common for fast food employees. A survey of hundreds of New York City fast food workers last year found that over half of respondents had been fired, laid off, or forced to quit a fast-food job due to intolerable working conditions.
Arbitrary firings aren’t the only problem. Sonia, who has worked at Chipotle for seven years, used to get scheduled for around 35 hours a week, but in the last few months, her hours have been cut down to just 12 a week. When she asked why, she was told that business is slow, but the store has continued to hire new workers. Sonia pays $200 for high blood pressure medicine and there have been times when she simply could not pay for it because she was not working enough hours. If fast food workers had Just Cause protections, Sonia’s manager would not be able to cut her hours by more than 15 percent without giving a fair reason. She would feel safer knowing that she could work enough each week to consistently pay for her medication.
There are 67,000 hard-working New Yorkers in the fast food industry. Fast food workers are often overlooked, dismissed as teens just looking for extra pocket money or simply ignored because many of them are low income women of color and/or immigrants. But for many of us, these jobs are critical to be able to pay medical bills, go to school, and to support our families.
Most people who work in the fast food industry can’t afford to suddenly lose their income. Many people are just a few hundred dollars away from missing rent and being homeless. When they lose their jobs without warning, have hours that they were counting on cut, the precarious balance of paying for rent, food, childcare, and school becomes impossible. Something usually has to go, leading to a spiral of losing housing, losing future opportunities, losing the ability to work.
For both of us, losing our jobs suddenly meant severe hardship. When Princess was fired, she was a senior at Mercy College studying Criminal Justice. Without her income from her fast food job, she fell behind on rent and struggled for months to catch up. When Sonia’s hours were cut, she had to go without life-saving medicine because she wasn’t working enough hours to be able to pay for it.
New York City can act to protect fast food workers from the instability and insecurity that being fired without any warning or reason brings. If workers had Just Cause protections, Chipotle would not have been able to cut Sonia’s hours arbitrarily. Princess would have had someone to go to to challenge her unfair dismissal.
Requiring employers to provide a justification for termination or cutting hours and giving people the right to go to an independent arbiter when they are fired unfairly will give fast food workers stability and respect that we deserve.
We do everything asked of us: long hours early in the morning or late at night. Back-to-back shifts. Standing on our feet for hours and hours, doing often dangerous, demanding work. Dealing with the constant anxiety that a delayed flight or subway train, a personal emergency, or a rude customer’s complaint will get us fired without warning.
Fast food workers deserve to be able to go to work with confidence that we can count on being compensated fairly for our work, won’t be fired without warning, or have our hours cut on a whim. Right now, fast food workers are on the front lines against capricious managers. Just Cause legislation will change that.
Princess Wright is a former McDonald’s employee and a graduate of Mercy College in Brooklyn.
Sonia Martinez is an employee at Chipotle in New York City.