On Thursday, workers from CKE Restaurants, which owns Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., filed 33 complaints against franchises of the company, which is run by Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Labor.
Already, Puzder had been facing strong headwinds on his road to confirmation—and he hasn’t even had a hearing yet amid delays. The controversy has included sexist ads for Carl’s Jr., CKE’s low wages saddling taxpayers with a $250 million bill, and calling his employees “the worst of the worst”—which provoked Joe Scarborough to call Puzder a “loser.”
This week, current and former workers have filed 33 complaints in 10 states: Alabama, California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Texas, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Of the complaints, 22 are regarding wage and hour issues, like wage theft and manipulated overtime, 7 are unfair labor practice complaints, and 4 are sexual harassment charges.
The sexual harassment charges, whose allegations include threats of sexual violence and multiple instances of retaliation, like moving the reporting employee to a less-desirable shift after they complained to HR, have been filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.The labor practices complaints have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board. The wage and hour complaints, however, have been mostly filed with the Department of Labor, the agency CKE’s CEO Puzder would be heading, which has a Wage and Hour division.
On a call with the members of the press organized by members of the Fight for 15 group and the National Employment Law Project, former workers spoke of intimidation, wage theft, and sexual harassment and retaliation. One Los Angeles worker at Carl’s Jr. named Ivan Nava said his manager moved his shifts to coincide with this college classes after she learned he had begun organizing to raise the minimum wage.
“If it wasn’t for food stamps, I don’t know how we would put food on the table,” he said. He also described not being allowed to attend to on the job injuries caused by the fryer and ice machine until after his shifts had ended.
The food stamp issue sheds light on one of the controversies that has emerged in the run-up to Puzder’s Feb. 7 hearing—it was delayed once again on Thursday just before the announcement—the necessity of public assistance to subsidize CKE workforce.
In addition to highlighting the role of public assistance for CKE’s franchises, National Employment Law Project’s General Counsel Cathy Ruckelshaus noted another issue: these transgressions that trim operating costs make it much harder for law-abiding businesses to compete.
In Birmingham, Ala., Torrence Chambers, a worker who found himself performing a wide variety of jobs described being paid via debit card, which after fees left him earning below state’s minimum wage of $7.25, and at the federal lower limit. This has not been an uncommon issue with other restaurant chains, such as Darden Restaurants.
According to Kendell Fells, an organizer with Fight for 15, the group that filed the complaints, the complaints “reveal a pattern of abuse, neglect that is a part of Andy Puzder’s business model. These complaints on top of Puzder’s history of opposition to basic worker protection should disqualify him.”
If confirmed as Labor Secretary, Puzder would oversee the organization fielding the complaints against the CKE franchises, a potential conflict of interest.
Reached for comment, a CKE spokesperson gave the following statement: “While we do not comment on pending litigation, we’d like to offer a reminder that CKE Restaurants is nearly 95% franchised. Each of these 2,769 franchise stores are run independently and solely responsible for their employees, management and adherence to regulations and labor practices.”
Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s franchise owners with the most complaints did not return email and phone requests by Yahoo Finance for comment by publication.
Who is responsible for working conditions in a franchise business model is currently in question. The NLRB has been holding hearings to determine whether McDonald’s is a “joint-employer” with its franchises, which would hold it accountable for violations. (McDonald’s is around 90% franchised.) An NLRB ruling wouldn’t affect CKE, but it could set a precedent for other fast food chains to be considered as such, according to the Chicago Tribune. Puzder opposed this “joint-employer” concept in an Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2014.
On Thursday, workers in 31 cities protested outside of CKE restaurants and Department of Labor branches, holding signs referencing, among other things, Puzder’s infamous quote to Business Insider last May on the advantage of automation and robots: “They’re 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,” Puzder said.
These aren’t the first complaints filed against Carl’s Jr. or Hardee’s restaurants. According to Bloomberg, 60% of Department of Labor investigations of CKE restaurants since 2009 regarding wage and hour complaints have found violations. Since Puzder took the reins in 2000, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) chalked up 98 safety violations, of which 36 could have caused serious harm or death, according to Huffington Post. Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s have also been slapped with more public discrimination lawsuits than any other hamburger chain, according to Capital & Main analysis from U.S. Court data.
“With this round of new complaints, it is clearer now more than ever that Andy Puzder presides over a fast-food empire that routinely exploits and abuses the workers who build its profits,” Ruckelshaus said. “The US Senate has all the reason it needs to reject this nomination and demand a labor secretary who will look out for working Americans instead of one who looks for ways to keep them down.”