January 23, 2017 at 5:00 am ET
President Donald Trump promised during the campaign that his administration would protect and fight for the American worker. However, talk is cheap, and Trump’s actions — past and present — make it clear that his real priorities lie elsewhere. Trump’s business past is filled with allegations of stiffing contractors and union-busting. And when tasked with choosing a leader to fulfill the U.S. Department of Labor’s mission to “foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners of the United States,” Trump nominated fast food CEO Andrew Puzder — someone who is squarely on the side of big business.
Puzder’s fierce opposition to pro-worker policies and his company’s record of underpaying and mistreating workers contradicts the mandate of the Labor Department, long a bulwark for worker rights and protections.
Puzder personally opposes raising standards for the very workers the DOL is designed to protect. He is against meaningful increases in the federal minimum wage and opposes updating overtime protections for millions of workers — claiming that what workers “lose in overtime pay” they gain in “stature” and “sense of accomplishment.” He blames paid sick leave requirements for forcing companies to automate jobs. While he is nominated to lead the Labor Department, he touts the benefits of actually eliminating workers, noting that robots are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”
Beyond his opposition to strengthening worker protections, Puzder’s record shows his companies fail to follow the laws currently on the books. One of the most important roles of the Labor Department is enforcing federal labor law. Puzder’s company, CKE Restaurants, the parent company to Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., and their franchisees have a record of breaking the same laws that the Labor Department is tasked with enforcing. Since 2004, Labor Department investigations have secured nearly $150,000 in back wages — wages that workers were owed but not paid — for Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. workers throughout the country. CKE restaurants and franchisees have also paid $156,000 in penalties for safety and wage and hour violations. And in California, Carl’s Jr. agreed to pay out $9 million to settle class action lawsuits in 2004 that claimed the company failed to pay overtime to workers.
Furthermore, documents obtained by the Center for American Progress Action Fund from a 2014 investigation of a corporate-owned Hardee’s in Alabama suggest that DOL investigators found that the CKE policy of paying workers with fee-laden prepaid debit cards resulted in workers being paid less than the federal minimum wage. When asked for comment on the case by the Huffington Post, DOL and CKE did not respond. While the DOL appears to have ordered the restaurant to pay more than $2,000 in back pay to workers, Hardee’s refused. The human resources manager made it clear that profits took priority over paying workers’ rightful wages, stating that he “doesn’t feel that paying the back wages will be beneficial,” as this would apparently require changing corporate payroll practices.
Violations like these have real impacts on workers. Hearing from the workers with the most experience with Puzder’s policies — those working at CKE restaurants — makes clear what is at stake. Testifying before a forum hosted by Senate Democrats, Carl’s Jr. worker Lupe Guzman shared her story of not being paid properly for regular or overtime work and being required to continue working during short breaks. Working nearly every day and making just $8.75 per hour, Guzman noted that she was still “struggling to survive” and relying on public assistance. Roberto Ramirez explained that he was fired after complaining that a paycheck was stolen. CKE manager Laura McDonald explained that managers were pressured into working off the clock to avoid overtime pay, stating that with regard to Andy Puzder, she “honestly can’t think of anyone less qualified to enforce laws that are supposed to protect employees.”
The millions of workers who the DOL is tasked to protect deserve a labor secretary ready to “assure work-related benefits and rights.” Instead, Trump has nominated a man who has a history of exploiting the very people he will be tasked with protecting. The Trump administration continues to talk the talk that they will stand up for workers, but Trump and Puzder’s companies’ shared history of failing to pay workers what they are owed shows that their word may not be worth much.
Alex Rowell is a research associate with the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
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