A proposed California law, AB 257, could transform fast-food work for the better

From today’s Fortune Magazine:

A new policy strategy emerging in California holds the potential to transform fast-food work from some of the lowest-paying jobs in the state into good jobs, with solid wages, benefits, and a voice at work. Workers, employers, and policymakers in the state and around the country should pay close attention to this model, because setting and enforcing high standards in the fast-food industry is notoriously challenging—due to the industry’s franchising model, its numerous small employers with little ability to profitably raise standards, and its largely non-union workforce.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 16: Flags are flown at a car caravan and rally of fast food workers and supporters for passage of AB 257, a fast-food worker health and safety bill, on April 16, 2021 in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. The rally was held outside of a McDonald’s location where a worker lodged public health complaints and a wage theft complaint. Some fast food workers are on strike in Los Angeles County today in support of the bill. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Fast food workers earn some of the lowest wages in California—$13.27 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—with only farm workers earning less in the state. Benefits are also meager: Researchers have estimated that just 13% of fast-food workers receive health benefits through their employer. A 2021 study found that more than two-thirds of the families of fast-food workers in California were enrolled in at least one public-safety net program, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Medicaid, at a public cost of $4 billion a year.

Compounding these problems is that nearly 9 in 10 fast food-workers, say they are subject to illegal working conditions—refused overtime pay, forced to do off-the-clock work, denied breaks, or placed in unsafe situations.

At the heart of the strategy to improve conditions for fast food workers in California is a “sectoral council,” which would bring together representatives of workers, employers, and public-sector regulators to make recommendations regarding minimum compensation, safety, scheduling stability, and training standards for the industry.  A hearing on the FAST Recovery Act—a bill that would establish the sectoral council—was held on April 22, and some think the bill could pass this year.

Sectoral councils and similar bodies have succeeded in helping raise working standards in a number of industries and regions. The state of New York used a wage board to bring together representatives of workers, employers, and the public to raise wages for fast-food workers;  the city of Seattle Domestic Workers Standards Board provides a forum for domestic workers, employers, private households, worker organizations, and the public to improve conditions for that sector; and a number of countries, including Australia and Britain, have used similar bodies in labor relations.

A fast-food sectoral council could form the backbone of fundamental change in the industry: It could not only raise standards for workers but also provide a way for workers as well employers—both franchisees and franchisors—to have a strong voice on the standards in their industry, while helping ensure standards are actually implemented and complied with.  These features are critical, because the structure of the fast-food industry makes it difficult to improve working conditions with traditional measures that have succeeded in other industries, such as actions by high-road employers that want to provide good compensation, the push of collective bargaining, or stand-alone legislated standards.

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Grocery workers are beginning to die of coronavirus

From today’s Washington Post:

Major supermarket chains are beginning to report their first coronavirus-related employee deaths, leading to store closures and increasing anxiety among grocery workers as the pandemic intensifies across the country.

A Trader Joe’s worker in Scarsdale, N.Y., a greeter at a Giant store in Largo, Md., and two Walmart employees from the same Chicago-area store have died of covid-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes, in recent days, the companies confirmed Monday.

Though more than 40 states have ordered nonessential businesses to close and told residents to stay home to stem the spread of the virus, supermarkets are among the retailers that remain open. Thousands of grocery employees have continued to report to work as U.S. infections and death rates continue to climb, with many reporting long shifts and extra workloads to keep up with spiking demand. Many workers say they don’t have enough protective gear to deal with hundreds of customers a day. Dozens of grocery workers have tested positive for the coronavirus in recent weeks.

Industry experts say the rise of worker infections and deaths will likely have a ripple effect on grocers’ ability to retain and add new workers at a time when they’re looking to rapidly hire thousands of temporary employees. Walmart, the nation’s largest grocer, is hiring 150,000 workers, while Kroger is adding more than 10,000. Many are offering an extra $2 an hour and promising masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. But finding people willing to work on the front lines for little more than the minimum wage could be an increasingly tough sell, according to supermarket analyst Phil Lempert.

“One of the biggest mistakes supermarkets made early on was not allowing employees to wear masks and gloves the way they wanted to,” he said. “They’re starting to become proactive now, but it’s still going to be much tougher to hire hundreds of thousands of new workers. We’re going to start seeing people say, ‘I’ll just stay unemployed instead of risking my life for a temporary job.’ “

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Coronavirus to cost California 125,000 hotel jobs trade group says

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Struck by a severe drop in travel demand, California’s hotel industry is expected to lose more than 125,000 jobs in the next few weeks, more than any other state, an industry trade group estimated Monday.

The hotel industry in the Golden State is expected to be hit hardest by the coronavirus outbreak because California has the most hotel jobs — about 285,000 — according to the American Hotel and Lodging Assn. trade group.

In addition to the loss of 125,000 hotel jobs, another 414,000 jobs that are supported by the hotel industry, such as waiters, busboys, bartenders and limousine drivers, could disappear in the next few weeks, the group said.

Only last month, the average occupancy rate — the percentage of hotel rooms filled — was 62% across the country, according to STR Global, a Tennessee company that tracks hotel data. By mid-March, the average occupancy rate nationwide had dropped to 53%.

To break even, hotels need to have an occupancy rate of 41% to 63%, depending on the type of hotel, according to industry analysis. Upscale hotels need a higher occupancy rate to pay for extra amenities, such as room service, valets and concierges, while economy hotels can break even with a much lower occupancy rate.

Because of the pandemic, hotels in some cities, including Seattle; San Francisco; Austin, Texas; and Boston, are reporting occupancy rates below 20%, with some individual hotels already shutting down, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Assn.

“The impact to our industry is already more severe than anything we’ve seen before, including September 11th and the Great Recession of 2008 combined,” Chip Rogers, chief executive of the trade association said in a statement Monday.

The lodging industry requested the federal government provide $150 billion in financial aid to keep the hotel industry afloat during the crisis. That is in addition to the $100 billion requested by other segments of the travel industry, such as convention centers, theme parks and tour companies.

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The Gig Economy Is Coming for Jobs

From today’s New York Times:

A few years ago, Adalberto Martín began to see some troubling changes at work. As a veteran member of the room service staff at Marriott’s W Hotel in downtown San Francisco, he was an expert in delivering carefully assembled trays of food and drink to hungry guests. But the number of orders had sharply decreased. What was once 50 glasses of orange juice every morning had dwindled to 10, and Mr. Martín’s tip income fell accordingly. At lunchtime, he seemed to make more deliveries of plates and silverware than actual food.

Room service, as we imagine it in the movies, with white tablecloths and silver cloches, has long been in decline, even at the fanciest hotels. But Mr. Martín attributes his loss of earnings to the proliferation of food delivery apps such as Uber Eats, DoorDash and Postmates, successors of online ordering services like Seamless. Now he wonders if soon he’ll be out of a job altogether. “We’re always worrying and concerned when we see other hotels nearby closing room service,” Mr. Martín told me. “It’s just a matter of time.”

His co-workers at the W and staff members at other hotels report similar trends: The doormen and bellmen who once summoned cabs for guests, and were tipped in return, now watch lines of Ubers and Lyfts coil in front of the lobby doors, while concierges have had their work outsourced to iPad consoles. Some hotels offer tablets in every room preloaded with food-delivery apps, and give guests vouchers for Uber and Lyft rides. In the microcosm of the hotel, the app economy has expanded choices for some (the guests) and shrunk options for others (the workers).

These currents in hospitality represent a subtle, sneaky form of technological displacement, care of the gig economy. They’re not robots stepping in for humans on a factory floor, but rather smartphone-based independent contractors and supplemental “cobots” (a portmanteau of “co-worker” and “robot”) chipping away at the careers of full-time and in some cases unionized employees.

In the beginning of the gig economy, people most feared one-to-one job loss: An Uber driver comes in, a taxi driver goes out. And taxi drivers have indeed lost their livelihoods — and taken their own lives. Yet many app workers are only part-time, driving or TaskRabbit-ing to supplement their wages in a traditional job. App companies, for their part, deny that even full-timers are employees, perpetuating the fantasy that gig workers are solo entrepreneurs. It’s a business model that reduces everything to a series of app-enabled transactions, and calls it work, leaving what’s left of the welfare state to fill in the rest.

Aaron Benanav, a labor historian at the University of Chicago, explains that this process of “de-skilling” and misclassification is happening all over the world. The gig economy “is being used to replace skilled workers with less skilled, or continuing a process that’s happening all over the world of ‘disguised employment,’ where you bring in independent contractors to replace employees,” he said. “There’s an app for that” means that there’s less steady, reliable work for traditional employees.

Read the complete article here.