Ending Unfair Firings for Fast-Food Workers in New York City Is a Key Step for Workplace Democracy

By Rebecca Dixon, NELP Executive Director

Throughout the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has awakened the world to our interdependence, especially with frontline workers who are building people power and rising up for more just workplaces. These workers inspire solidarity as they lay bare how the policies that govern workplaces offer little protection from employers with undue power. Due to structural racism, Black and brown workers, and especially women, are segregated into underpaid frontline jobs where employers use their power to put them at great risk of contracting COVID-19 — firing those who speak out about paid leave, safety issues, and more.

Person with megaphone speaks at rally — Photo by Overpass Light Brigade

Abuse of power erodes democracy across institutions in the U.S. — but workers have a vision for more democratic workplaces where they are free to speak out and organize without retaliatory firings — creating stability and increasing wellbeing for individuals and families, and more opportunity for building worker power and therefore, a stronger democracy overall. That’s why it’s so urgent and exciting that the New York City Council is voting this week to mandate “just cause” employment protections for fast-food workers, which would help protect thousands of workers, many of them workers of color, from unfair and discriminatory firing.

Racism is baked into labor laws in the U.S. in order to make racial capitalism durable, and one of the most egregious and persistent injustices that springs from this is the fact that employees can be fired abruptly — without notice or a good reason — and left with bills due and no paycheck or severance pay. The U.S. is unique among rich and industrialized nations in preserving this cudgel that makes beating back worker power a feature of daily work life. This hallmark of the current system of employment law, known as at-will employment, wreaks havoc on the lives of U.S. workers and their families, when the paycheck they depend on is there one day and is gone the next. The at-will relationship underlies a large and enduring power imbalance between U.S. workers and their employers, granting employers inordinate control over workers’ livelihoods, undermining their bargaining power and ability to speak out at work, and perpetuating longstanding racial and gender inequities in the workplace.

The disruption and destabilization resulting from unfair firings hurts Black and Latinx workers the most. They are more likely than white workers to face an extended period of unemployment after losing a job — and, on average, have less household savings or family wealth to fall back on while they’re out of work. At-will employment also fuels racism in the workplace by making it difficult to enforce our laws banning discrimination on the job. When employers legally can give almost any reason — or no reason at all — for a firing, it becomes a tremendous uphill battle for a worker to prove that illegal discrimination was, in fact, really driving the decision.

At-will employment similarly leaves whistleblowers who sound the alarm about dangerous or illegal conditions at work vulnerable to being punished or fired — as we’ve seen vividly during the pandemic. And Black workers report higher rates of retaliation for raising COVID-19 safety concerns at work than other workers. Without broad protection from arbitrary firings, workers have a much harder time speaking up on the job and organizing for their own wellbeing at work.

A 2019 survey of New York fast-food workers illustrated how commonplace arbitrary firings are in the industry and the harmful and cascading effects they can have on workers, families, and communities — leading to eviction, students dropping out of school, food insecurity, homelessness, and more. The new City Council legislation responds to this problem by guaranteeing fast-food workers advance notice, a fair process, and a good reason before they lose their jobs.

The Council is considering this legislation because NYC fast-food workers, a largely Black and Latinx workforce of frontline workers, have come together to fight for just-cause employment protections, hoping to join parking lot workers in Philadelphia and journalists in New York city in winning their campaigns. The new legislation will bring these safeguards to a major industry as frontline workers have been sustaining New York during the pandemic, while facing unfair job conditions and unstable employment. The new just-cause law will protect workers in building power and more democratic workplaces, benefiting them immediately and creating momentum for a stronger democracy where workers’ voices are truly heard.

National Employment Law Project (NELP) strives to build economic security and opportunity for all of America’s workers.

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