At the end of last year, the California Labor Commissioner ordered a San Francisco Burger King franchise owner to pay 230 workers over $2.2 million in stolen wages and penalties. The decision, issued Dec. 19, stated that owners Monu Singh and Harkiran “Romi” Randhawa, along with their franchise Golden Gate Restaurant Group, Inc., owed workers over $724,000 in wages, $371,000 in interest, and $1.2 million in penalties. The decision came months after a 13-day hearing in the spring of 2022, during which eight former employees testified about the unlawful working conditions and unpaid hours they experienced at six Burger King restaurants across San Francisco. Now, the owners have until Feb. 2 to either appeal the decision or pay the workers.
“I am happy that justice is being served and that the state has decided to hold the Burger King franchise owners accountable to workers,” former San Francisco Burger King employee Daniel Marini, who testified in the hearing, said in a statement. “We have been fighting hard to get back the wages rightfully owed to us. I hope this sends a message to other workers: don’t be afraid; if something is wrong, and you’re being exploited, you can stand up, speak out, and win.”
The workers began organizing with Trabajadores Unidos Workers United (TUWU), a center that supports workers without a union, and Legal Aid at Work in 2019 when TUWU began documenting labor violations at the restaurant. Legal Aid at Work helped provide workers general support and legal assistance throughout the investigation.
“This decision is proof that when workers speak up and demand that their rights are respected, employers will be held to account for wage theft and other illegal practices,” said Legal Aid at Work attorney Alexx Campbell in a statement. “Other fast food franchises and employers across the state should take note that attempts to cut costs by shirking California’s employment protections will not go unpunished.”
Adriana Rendon, a former Burger King worker and current organizer with TUWU, had been working at the franchise since she first immigrated to California from Mexico in 2004. She worked at one location for eight years, took a year off to have a baby, then started working at the Singh- and Randhawa-owned franchise in 2012. Though she was hired to work in the kitchen, Rendon was forced to take on other roles since the restaurant was short-staffed. She would take orders, clean, and prepare food all for minimum wage, five days a week, and many times worked beyond her scheduled 9 a.m.-5 p.m. shifts. According to Rendon, she and her colleagues were also not allowed to take breaks to rest or eat.
“It was a very stressful job because we felt the pressure to be doing several things at the same time,” said Rendon over the phone. “Plus the pressure we had from the customers—because it’s a fast food store, they wanted their food fast.”
According to Rendon, the hours that she and her colleagues worked outside their shifts, in addition to sick days, were never paid. Her employer would tell her that she’d see it in the next check, but the money never came. At the time, Rendon was not aware of her rights. Once TUWU entered the picture, she was able to take her power back as a worker.
“That was what impacted me the most: when I learned to consider it a right,” said Rendon.
Rendon, a mother of two children, would have to find someone to watch her children when they got sick so she would not have to miss a day of work and pay. According to Rendon, whenever she would take her own sick day, her employer would retaliate and withhold payment.
“Those are the things that, when I learned of my rights, I wish I could have known about at the time,” said Rendon. “I could have passed those days with my kids; I could have been watching them at home and not leaving them in the care of someone else. Because I didn’t want to lose a paycheck, knowing I could have had that day off without losing money, it’s very intense.”
Fast food workers typically face a large uphill battle when trying to unionize due to factors like high turnover rate and retaliatory employers. However, with growing inflation and unchanging low wages, workers are standing up and championing for their rights. In September 2022, California Gov. Gavin Newsom passed the landmark FAST Recovery Act, which sought to increase the minimum wage to $22 an hour for workers at major franchises in addition to creating an oversight commission for workers in the industry. The commission, also known as the Fast Food Council, would include workers’ delegates, employers’ representatives, and two state officials, all of whom would help set the minimum standards for wages, hours, and working conditions in California.
Though these changes were originally meant to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023, a coalition of restaurants and business groups opposing the FAST Recovery Act were able to collect enough signatures by Dec. 5 last year to trigger a statewide referendum, delaying the law’s implementation until November 2024. Now, California voters will have to decide whether to repeal the law on next year’s ballot.
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) California filed a complaint with state officials in response to this referendum, alleging that the signatures were collected fraudulently and that petition circulators misled voters to believe the petition would actually help raise minimum wage for fast food workers.
“Despite fast food corporations’ efforts to distort the referendum process, we know California voters see through their tricks,” said SEIU president Mary Kay Henry in a statement.
Even with these setbacks, the Labor Commissioner’s decision to penalize Burger King franchise owners was still a win for workers, stating that Singh and Randhawa’s actions were in violation of California labor law.
Rendon now works as an organizer with TUWU in an effort to pass on the information she learned to her community and continue the fight for workers’ rights.
“I don’t want anyone else to go through these types of violations that I lived through,” said Rendon. “I want the injustice to stop, for corporations to realize they need to value our work. We as workers have a right to a decent job where they respect and value our rights.”