Employees of Trump’s labor secretary pick describe working in fear and danger

CKE Restaurant employees share stories of getting injured at work and never knowing how many hours they’ll get.

President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee for Labor Secretary, Andy Puzder. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File
President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee for Labor Secretary, Andy Puzder. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File

Andy Puzder, the CEO of CKE Restaurants and President Trump’s pick to run the Labor Department, would oversee the country’s only agency dedicated to helping workers and improving their working conditions. Yet stories continue to pour out from employees of the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants he oversees describing a workplace full of danger, chaos, and low pay. A new report released by Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Patty Murray (WA) shared with ThinkProgress highlights some of their experiences.

Working in fear

Workers report conditions that are dangerous enough that they get injured, but say they get little help when they’re hurt. Ashlee, who worked at a Hardee’s in Tennessee, recounted that she and her employees would get burned from grease that shoots up from the hot grill. But when she asked about burn cream, she was told the store didn’t have any. “Over time I realized that this wasn’t on accident — they in fact never had burn cream,” she said. She says there were also no first-aid kits or even band aids.

Christina, who worked as a Hardee’s cashier in North Carolina from 2006 to 2011, once burned herself while cleaning equipment. But rather than help her file a workers’ compensation claim, she said her store manager pressured her to use her personal health insurance to see the doctor. “She tried to make it seem like it was in my best interest to use my own insurance, but I knew she didn’t want me to file a claim because workplace injuries impacted her bonus,” she said.

Zuleyma says she experienced something similar. When she injured her arm and knee at her Carl’s Jr. job in Arizona, she said she was sent to a company doctor “where I received substandard care.” Another employee said her work is so physical that she developed a hernia.

In a recent survey of CKE Restaurant employees conducted by worker advocacy group ROC United, nearly a third of respondents said they had gotten sick or injured at work. One in five said they had been pressured to do their jobs in a way that could risk injury. CKE has also been cited 21 times by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 2009.

Lupe says she has dealt with a different danger: she’s twice been held up at gunpoint, and she says there is little in place to protect her safety at the drive-through window. “Corporate didn’t care about what I went through,” she said. “I was throwing up and shaking, and they asked if anything was stolen.”

There are also reports of a different kind of violence. Faith said she experienced sexual harassment while working at a Carl’s Jr. in Oregon. “One of my coworkers…would constantly grab me and grope me,” she said. “He’d force me to hug him when I didn’t want to and he’d make sexual comments toward me.”

It escalated, she said, when they were both promoted to shift leaders. He walked into the office behind her, shut the door, and put his hands on her hips. “I pushed him off the best that I could and ran to the front and didn’t say anything because I was embarrassed and was fearful of retaliation,” she said. “I never reported anything because I never thought anything would change.”

In the same ROC survey, two-thirds of female employees said they had experienced sexual harassment on the job. Four complaints of sexual harassment were also just filed against the company.

Chaotic schedules

Workers don’t just say they are frequently paid the lowest wage possible under law — they also say that their schedules are so variable and they get so few hours that it’s nearly impossible to support themselves.

Sheryl says her schedule has been cut down so much that she’s only working nine hours a week at a Carl’s Jr. in Arizona. Other coworkers are working just 30 hours a week. Even though she’s been with the company for years, she makes just above minimum wage, so with the short hours it’s difficult to make a living and she doesn’t qualify for benefits. “No one can live on those kinds of hours even if they paid us a living wage,” she said.

Managers confirm that this is a regular practice. Laura, who worked at a California Carl’s Jr. as a general manager for 20 years, said she is given a strict limit of how many full-time employees she can hire so as to keep health care benefits down, requiring her to hire people at lower hours. “Very often, the CKE labor budget means that we will give workers a shift of just two or three hours and even then we sometimes have to send people home when it is slow,” she said. “No matter how hard they work, there’s just no way for an employee to know how much she will make in a given week because we have to hit the labor budget.”

Maribel, who worked at a CKE Restaurant from 1999 to 2010 as a general manager, has also had to carry this out. She says she often has to tell new hires who thought they would be full time that they will only be part-time for budget reasons. “When I make the schedule, I have to go and tell people with families to support that they aren’t going to get all the hours they were expecting,” she said. “Sometimes employees break down or cry because the store just doesn’t have the labor budget to give them the hours they were expecting.”

“Working at CKE means being constantly afraid,” she said. For a manager like her, that means fearing for her job if she can’t meet the budget constraints by getting employees to work few enough hours or put in time off the clock.

Working through illness

Blanca has diabetes, and even though she works in California where state law requires employers to offer paid sick leave, she says that her requests to use her days off at Carl’s Jr. are regularly denied. “I cannot afford to miss work,” she said.

The 59-year-old single mother and grandmother of nine says it was so bad once that after she had passed out from low blood sugar and her son called her manager to say she couldn’t work, her manager suspended her for four days and then fired her in retaliation, only a week later offering to hire her at a different location.

In the ROC survey, almost 70 percent of respondents said they don’t get paid sick days. That means that nearly 80 percent say they’ve worked while sick.

The stories in Warren and Murray’s report repeat other accusations that employees have recently made against the company: that it pressures employees to perform work off the clock, denies them breaks that are mandated by law, and fails to pay time-and-a-half for overtime hours. All of these practices violate the very wage and hour laws that Puzder would be in charge of enforcing as Labor Secretary.

While the company argues that many of these practices are happening at franchised locations where it doesn’t exert control, employees dispute that claim. “Everything at CKE is controlled from the top,” said Laura, the California Carl’s Jr. general manager. “There are thousands of pages of manuals that control everything. There are also strict standards.”

Maribel said the same thing. “CKE uses its budget system to pressure us into working hours every week without pay,” she said. “It’s built into the system.”