For Lupe Guzman, a 47-year-old single mother of six, every penny of her biweekly paychecks from a Las Vegas Carl’s Jr. restaurant is essential. The checks are the only way that she can afford her rent, pay her bills, and make sure that her children are fed when they go to school each day.
So when Guzman saw that her paychecks for her graveyard shifts were missing pay for the 30-minute lunch break she took each day, reducing her barely-above-minimum-wage earnings to less than $500 every two weeks, she became worried.
“When there is money missing, I notice,” she said Tuesday during an emotional appeal to Democratic senators at the U.S. Capitol.
Guzman and two other employees of CKE Restaurants, the parent company to Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, shared stories of mistreatment at the hands of their company’s CEO, Andy Puzder, who Trump has nominated to be secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor. They spoke of being required to work off-the-clock without pay, having entire paychecks stolen by management, and being required to be on-call at all hours.
The company’s culture of mistreatment, they claim, began when Puzder took over in 2000. And they warned that their situations could become commonplace if he were to lead the agency tasked with protecting the nation’s workers.
“He looks at people like us as a cost to be cut, not as families who want a fair shot at a better life,” Guzman wrote in her testimony. “Andrew Puzder supports ideas and policies that will make life harder for my children and me, not better.”
Guzman has worked for seven years as a shift leader at Carl’s Jr., a position she took during the peak of the financial crisis when she lost her prior job and when her husband left her family.
“We moved around from motel to motel,” she said through tears. “I can’t even begin to go into how hard that was on all of us.”
She was grateful to land a job at Carl’s Jr. but Guzman is still forced to supplement her $8.75 hourly wage with food stamps, housing assistance, and Medicaid. That salary is hard to live on, but it’s even harder when management tries to stiff employees for their hours.
When she noticed that her paychecks did not include her paid lunch breaks, she alerted management, who fixed the issue. But she said she never received back pay and knows other people who have not spoken up and still get their breaks deducted.
“I work doubles and get overtime, but my store doesn’t pay time and a half,” she said. “Sometimes they just cut off the extra hours entirely.”
At other times, the restaurant’s computer that tracks hours will freeze, and employees will be unable to earn money for their hours.
“It is simply wrong that Carl’s Jr. does not pay us for every hour we work,” Guzman said. “I try not to complain, but when I see an injustice, I am going to open my mouth. When I’m shorted on my paycheck, I won’t keep quiet. But I know that others are too afraid to speak up.”
Laura McDonald worked as a general manager at Carl’s Jr. in California from 1998 to 2012. After Puzder took over the company in 2000, she said wage theft began to accelerate.
McDonald is one of a number of managers who have filed a class-action lawsuit against CKE seeking back pay for overtime wages earned before the company reclassified managers as hourly employees. But even after the restaurant began paying her overtime, McDonald said she was forced to work off-the-clock and was not paid for all of the time she was required to be on-call.
“CKE requires all of its general managers to be available 24/7,” she said in her testimony. “They specifically tell you that you must always be available by phone both to address problems in the restaurant and to answer calls from your district manager. The work is non-stop.”
And because of the corporation’s strict labor budget, she had to work off the clock in order to complete all the work without going over-budget.
“The labor budget only allowed us to be paid for 47.5 hours per week,” she said. “But it takes more than that to do all of the work…. All general managers work off the clock, and CKE knows we do it.”
She also alleges that after courts mandated that CKE pay managers overtime, the company cut her salary so that she would have to work 47 and a half hours in order to earn what she once made working just 40 hours.
All of the problems she experienced during her time at CKE got worse when former owner Carl Karcher died and Puzder took over, she said.
“I think Carl Karcher would be ashamed of what CKE has done to its employees,” she said. “Stealing wages from employees who need money to feed their families is not what Carl would have wanted and it’s not what I want from an employer.”
“I honestly can’t think of anyone less qualified to enforce laws that are supposed to protect employees,” she continued. “He never protected the employees he was in charge of at CKE, so I do not think he would be the person to protect American workers’ rights.”
Roberto Ramirez has worked in the restaurant industry for more than 18 years, spending most of his time at Carl’s Jr. locations in Los Angeles. For a long time, he said the work environment was enjoyable and he did not have issues with his pay, but things progressively got worse after Puzder took over.
In recent years, Ramirez said he has been forced to work unpaid time during the busy morning hours before he officially clocks in.
“My managers were aware that I was working those extra 30 minutes but I was never paid for that time or asked to clock in when I started working early,” he said in Spanish in his testimony to Congress. When he didn’t finish his work by the end of his shift, managers would retaliate. He said they have cut his hours, changed his schedule, and sent him home early.
He also alleges that he a manager once stole and cashed a $150 paycheck belonging to Ramirez.
“I was outraged, not for the amount of the check, but for management stealing from me,” he said. “I complained to the district manager who came to the store to tell me that there was nothing I could do and if I wanted to still fight for it, I would do it outside the restaurant by filing a lawsuit against the manager.”
Ramirez alleges that after that incident, his hours were cut and he was eventually fired.
“This happened to me for many years and I would hate that future generations would experience the same situation that I did,” he said.
Part time status
Workers aren’t just sharing their stories of what it’s like to work for Puzder’s companies with Congress. On Thursday, they also took to the streets to protest his nomination in 25 cities across the country.
Jessenia Adamde, who works at a Carl’s Jr. in Austin, Texas as a shift leader, was among them. She makes $9.50 an hour but struggles to raise her three children on those wages. “I’m behind on medical bills, I have hospital bills,” she told ThinkProgress over the phone. “I feel like I deserve more than what I’m getting now for all the work I’m doing.”
She also says that even with the promotion she got to shift manager, her schedule is always just under 40 hours a week, keeping her at part-time status and denying her any benefits. That meant recently that when she injured herself at home—burning her ankle so badly that skin was peeling off—her store told her she had to come in to work, even though she had a doctor’s note instructing her not to work for six days. She returned to work, because she doesn’t get any paid time off for illness.
For these reasons, she opposes Puzder’s nomination. “I hope he doesn’t get it,” she said. “He’s just like Trump. He degrades women, he fights for the upper class, he doesn’t fight for the people that actually work for his company, that work hard, run the stores for him.”