Andy Puzder, CEO of fast food conglomerate CKE Restaurants and President-elect Donald Trump’s selection to lead the Department of Labor and oversee the enforcement of the country’s workplace laws, will soon face public scrutiny at his confirmation hearing. But his tenure running CKE, which owns fast food companies like Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., is already coming back to haunt him.
On Tuesday, restaurant employee advocacy group ROC United released a report alleging worker mistreatment. The organization gathered 564 responses to a survey that paint a picture of widespread sexual harassment, discrimination, wage theft, and unsafe conditions at CKE establishments.
In an email to ThinkProgress, a CKE spokesperson dismissed the report as “nothing more than a politically motivated attack piece aimed at Andy Puzder.”
Sexual harassment and rape
In the report, Christina, whose first job was working at a Hardee’s, described being subject to “inappropriate interactions” with her supervisor when she first started. “Once, he just grabbed me and kissed me while we were cleaning in the back,” she said. “It was very confusing — as a teenager, I wasn’t totally sure what to make of my relationship with him. I felt very pressured by him.”
“I just felt like this is how it is to work,” she said.
While the fast food industry is rife with sexual harassment — 40 percent of women reported experiencing it in a recent report — CKE Restaurants appears to have a particularly egregious problem. ROC found that 66 percent of female employees said they had experienced sexual harassment from either their managers, coworkers, or customers. That’s a rate 1.5 times greater than the fast food industry as a whole.
The female employees said they had to put up with harassing behaviors including being grabbed, kissed, fondled, pinched, touched, or cornered; inappropriate remarks, jokes, or questions; sexually explicit phone calls or texts; getting pressured for dates; being shown sexually explicit photos; and being asked to flirt with customers.
Four percent of women said they had experienced rape or attempted rape while working at a CKE establishment.
On top of this, nearly 20 percent of ROC’s survey respondents said they had faced discrimination at work, including those who said they had been unfairly treated thanks to their their age, race, gender, and sexual orientation.
Roberto Ramirez, who worked for Carl’s Jr. for more than 18 years, says he didn’t always get the money promised to him.
At a press conference put on by ROC United and Democrats on the House Committee on Education & the Workforce on Tuesday, he described being pressured to start work 30 minutes before he officially punched in for his shift “so I could start prepping all the food for breakfast and lunch, clean the bathrooms, clean the floors.”
Worse, recently he was about to take vacation and requested his $150 paycheck. He told it was being processed, but even after multiple attempts he was never able to get his pay. “If I wanted to do something about this,” he said, “I had to take the restaurant to court.” He said he was eventually fired for complaining to managers about what happened.
“I felt humiliated,” he said of his wage theft experience at the company. If Puzder becomes Labor Secretary, he said, “What happened to me will be multiplied nationwide.”
Among ROC’s survey responses, more than a quarter of workers said they had worked off the clock, putting in work without pay. Some said their timecards had been altered to report fewer hours than they actually spent working.
Nearly a third also said they had worked more than 40 hours a week but weren’t paid time-and-a-half for the extra hours, despite the fact that overtime rules require it. Many also reported that they didn’t get meal breaks and rest periods that are mandated by state laws.
A review by ThinkProgress also found a number of legal complaints against CKE over wage theft, such as being denied overtime pay and then the denial of backpay when they proved their charges and the denial of breaks at work.
Unhealthy working conditions
Ashley Sutphin, a recent Hardee’s employee whose testimony was read at the press conference on Tuesday, recounted injuries she and her coworkers suffered at work. They “would get burned from the grease that would shoot up from the sizzling hot grill,” she said. Yet she said the store never had a first aid kit, burn cream, or even bandaids.
In the surveys collected by ROC, nearly a third of employees said they had gotten sick or injured at work, while 20 percent said they had been pressured to do their work in a way that risked injuries.
The report also notes that CKE has been cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration 21 times since 2009. One citation included a $23,420 fine over an employee who suffered a severe burn from cleaning with water that was between 180 and 212 degrees hot.
Meanwhile, almost 80 percent of surveyed workers said they had worked and prepared or served food while sick. That could be because nearly 70 percent said they don’t get paid sick days.
Ashley also recounted going to work sick and seeing her coworkers do their jobs while very ill, including “cooks in the back…puking off into the garbage can and then finish up an order.”
She often couldn’t take paid time off, even when her grandfather passed away. “Instead of allowing me to take the day off, they forced me to work on the day of his funeral,” she said in her testimony.