If President Donald Trump is hell bent on naming a fast food industry leader as the nation’s next Secretary of Labor, I’d like to put forward another name instead -- Bill Phelps.
At least Phelps, the CEO of Wetzel’s Pretzels – which operates more than 100 outlets in California – cares a bit about the plight of the workers he employs. He is now on record in favor of increasing the minimum wage – even if it is in his self interest. In 2014, following the state’s increase of the minimum wage, he was prepared to take a financial hit. Instead he was surprised when he saw business skyrocket. “I was stunned by the business,” Phelps recently told KQED. He now contends that raises could be a boon to the fast food industry rather than its death knell.
On the other hand, Andrew Puzder, CEO of CKE Enterprises – which operates Carl’s Jr and Hardee’s – is Trump’s nominee to become the next U.S. Secretary of Labor. Puzder, a long-time critic of any efforts to boost workers’ wages, maintains that the teenagers working for him who are just starting out their careers and working for pocket money don’t need the additional wages. Furthermore, any increase in wages will only force companies to cut positions to maintain profits. Only trouble is most fast food workers aren’t kids anymore. Some 70 percent are in their 20’s with a high school degree supporting a family. Puzder also likes the idea of fully automating a restaurant so that a robot would be the one preparing and serving your Budweiser Beer Cheese Bacon Thickburger. Robots, he reasons, never take vacations, never demand raises, never get sick and never sue you for sexual harassment.
All of this would be grim enough if Puzder were only the man responsible for the salaries of more than 10,000 (non robot) employees at restaurants throughout the country. Unfortunately, Puzder is no ordinary multimillionaire. He could easily be the World’s Worst Boss for millions of workers as head of the Dept. of Labor.
There is enough irony in this situation to fill a luxury suite at Trump Mar-a-Lago. Puzder opposes the Affordable Care Act and has spoken against federal rules that would make more workers eligible for overtime pay. Put another way, the man with a virulently anti-worker vision is on the verge of overseeing the federal agency that champions workers’ rights. Henhouse, meet the fox. He’ll be running the show from here on out.
Labor advocates have been screaming bloody murder ever since Trump tagged Puzder for the post, and this confirmation hearing may not be a slam dunk. Under Puzder’s watch, CKE restaurants have been found guilty of multiple labor law violations, often for failing to pay minimum wage or time and a half for overtime. Puzder’s confirmation hearing is scheduled for Feb. 2, but with all the criticism, there are reports he’s having “second thoughts.” Talk about not being able to take the heat.
CNN has also reported that Puzder could face some grilling questions about remarks he has made about women. Carl’s Jr. is the company that released all those TV ads with the skimpily dressed models devouring burgers, ads that Puzder maintains are part of “the core of what we believe." Of course, Trump himself has said far worse things about women than Puzder and he’s in the White House.
Writing about “Bad Bosses” for “The Daily Beast” shortly after Puzder’s nomination, Tim Mak and Amelia Warshaw compile a daunting list of CKE labor infractions past and present. They also point out that Puzder has alienated “everyone from pro-immigration reform Democrats, who are concerned about his views on labor laws, to restrictionist groups who are concerned he is too friendly to foreign workers.”
Given the man’s extensive collection of labor-related baggage, the confirmation hearing – which has been pushed back to February - could be very protracted. Or it could go very quickly:
Senate Committee on Health, Education Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander: Thanks for being here, Mr. Puzder. Do you still have a problem with all Americans earning at least $15 an hour.
Andrew Puzder: You bet I do, and I’ll tell you why…
Alexander: Thank you, that won’t be necessary. We’re done here. Be sure to get your parking validated on the way out.
And just like that the door would swing open to an appointee who cares about workers. Whoever that person is, they should put Bill Phelps on speed dial. We may need a pretzel man to help untangle the labor landscape.