President Donald Trump has nominated Andrew Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of fast food chains Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., to lead the U.S. Department of Labor. As labor secretary, Puzder would be responsible for protecting millions of American workers. In his book, Job Creation: How It Really Works and Why Government Doesn’t Understand it., co-written with professor David Newton, Puzder attempts to downplay the real problems that many Americans face at work—implying that employer abuses are mostly historical artifacts. At his Senate confirmation hearing, these workers deserve answers on Puzder’s commitment to investigate the exploitative employers that still exist today, as well as on his statements and actions toward his own employees.
Enforcing the United States’ labor laws
The Department of Labor is in charge of making sure that workers are paid what they deserve and that they remain safe on the job. In fiscal year 2016 alone, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division secured back wages for more than 280,000 workers across the country who were not properly paid for hours worked.
In his book, however, Puzder minimizes the real problems that workers face in today’s economy and implies that worker exploitation is primarily a thing of the past. While he admits that “there have been instances in our history when powerful employers took advantage of and exploited their employees,” he claims that these instances “mask the true mutually beneficial relationship between employer and employee” that is more prevalent today.
This is a dangerous philosophy for someone appointed to lead the Department of Labor and fulfill its mission to “foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners of the United States.”
It is true that when employers treat their employees well—providing good wages, benefits, and a voice on the job—both workers and their companies can benefit. However, this type of high-road partnership is rare in many sectors, including the fast food industry. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Americans should learn if Puzder’s record with his workers truly reflects the “mutually beneficial relationship” described in his book. Evidence suggests that his company may instead exemplify a powerful employer taking advantage of its employees.
The Labor Department has found that Puzder’s company, CKE Restaurants, and its franchisees have a history of violating the very laws he would be expected to enforce as secretary of labor. Since 2004, CKE Restaurants and its franchisees have paid out nearly $150,000 in back wages to their workers due to Labor Department investigations. Additionally, documents obtained through a 2016 Freedom of Information Act request by the Center for American Progress Action Fund from a 2014 investigation of a corporate-owned Hardee’s in Alabama suggest that the company’s policy of paying workers with prepaid debit cards resulted in workers being paid less than the minimum wage. The Labor Department and CKE Restaurants did not respond to The Huffington Post’s request for comment on the case during its reporting on the documents.
Americans need answers to determine how these violations happened under Puzder’s watch, as well as on his dedication to labor law enforcement as labor secretary. Workers cannot afford a return to the era of the Labor Department under Secretary Elaine Chao, which the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, found left victims of wage theft “with nowhere to turn,” as half of complaints from undercover GAO investigators were never recorded in the Labor Department’s complaint database.
Valuing American workers
The labor secretary serves as an advocate in the Cabinet for workers. However, there are reasons to doubt that Puzder will truly stand up for the workers who need him the most.
In his book, Puzder states that “the free enterprise system by its very nature encourages employers to value their employees.” His own statements cast doubt on that claim. He once stated that, “In fast food, you sort of compete for the best of the worst.” He shared in an interview that his “first memo” as CEO was “no more people behind the counter unless they have all their teeth.” Puzder has even spoken about the benefits of eliminating workers, claiming that robots are“always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”
Puzder claims in his book that “In exchange for their services and loyalty, employees receive compensation and the satisfaction that comes from supporting yourself and your family.” To appropriately consider Puzder’s qualifications to be labor secretary, senators should consider if this was true for his workers. While the workers Puzder has disparaged will not be allowed to testify at his confirmation hearing, Americans should still hear Puzder respond to their claims.
At a Senate forum in January, Carl’s Jr. employee Lupe Guzman shared that she was not properly paid for hours worked. Even when paid fully, she had to rely on public assistance to support her family. This is not an uncommon story: Researchers at the National Employment Law Project estimate that, in total, CKE employees receive approximately $247 million in public assistance annually to make up for their low wages. It is hard to see how failing to pay workers enough to support their families qualifies as “valuing” employees.
During his Senate confirmation hearing, Puzder should be held accountable for his statements and past actions. Americans deserve a labor secretary who recognizes the need for the continued robust enforcement of labor laws, respects workers, and advocates on their behalf in the White House. Unfortunately, Puzder does not fit the bill.
Alex Rowell is a Research Associate with the Economic Policy team at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.