Restaurant Owners, Fast Food Workers Clash Over Proposed City Legislation


Council Members Brad Lander (Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Columbia Waterfront, Gowanus, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Borough Park, Kensington) and Adrienne Adams (Jamaica, Richmond Hill, Rochdale Village, South Ozone Park) last week floated a mini-package of legislation they said would protect fast-food workers from being fired without just cause. 

But restaurant owners pushed back calling the legislation a government overreach that impacts their ability to make crucial decisions that could have dire effects on their business.

Dubbed Just Cause, the legislative package is meant to protect workers from unfair firings or drastic cuts in hours. The thinking under the legislation is that city fast-food workers are at frequent risk of being fired or having their hours reduced, without being given any reason or notice, forcing thousands of New York families to live in constant uncertainty and fear. 

Int. 1415 (Lander) will prohibit fast food employers from firing an employee for any reason other than the employee’s failure to perform job duties or misconduct and will consider a reduction in hours of 15% or more equivalent to a termination, to ensure employers cannot skirt the new standard by forcing people to quit by cutting their hours. 

City Council Member Brad Lander

“Too many fast-food workers have been fired without a just cause, without a warning, without even any notice,” said Lander,  “and if you can be fired simply on the whim of an angry boss or a disgruntled customer’s complaint, then you’re far more vulnerable to harassment or abuse.

Int. 1396 (Adams) will require layoffs for economic reasons to proceed with reverse seniority, so that employers cannot do by way of layoffs what they will not be able to do through arbitrary dismissals.

“For far too long fast-food workers have been the victims of unfair reduction of hours or arbitrary termination,” said Adams. “By enacting Just Cause legislation, the City could require that fast-food chains demonstrate a legitimate reason for terminating a worker or reducing their hours. In New York City we must stand up and address these injustices in an effort to protect workers in this industry. Just Cause legislation is a necessary step to bring accountability to fast-food giants and security to their employees.” 

At a rally on the steps of city hall last week, fast food workers shared stories of being unfairly terminated or having their hours cut. Melody Walker, who worked at Chipotle, said she was fired on the spot in the middle of her shift in 2017. All the reason her boss gave was that she was “not smiling enough.” 

“I did my job well and always arrived early for my shift. I thought that it could be a stable job with an income that I could support my family with. There were not even customers in the store at the time,” said Walker.

The legislative package also has union support. 

“In recent years, fast-food workers have been organizing to change conditions in their industry to create better jobs, not only for themselves and their families but for all communities. But the fast-food industry is still very broken. Employers turn workers’ lives upside down, firing them for arbitrary reasons or no reason at all, forcing families to live with constant uncertainty,” said 32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg.

But New York State Restaurant Association (NYSRA) spokesperson Kathleen Reilly said the measures infringe on the rights of private businesses. 

“To require a private business to prove anything to the city as a condition for making an internal HR decision like layoffs is an immense overreach of government,” said Reilly in testimony before the council’s Civil Service and Labor Committee public hearing on the issue. “Furthermore, by being required to prove evidence of financial hardship, the city prevents operators from being forward-looking, and conducting layoffs or “staffing down” to prevent financial hardship before it hits.”

While NYSRA acknowledged the troubling testimonials given by various fast-food workers, they testified that this is an issue of conflating illegal acts of wrongful termination with the rights of employers under at-will employment. 

“New York is an at-will state, which means at-will employment is part of state labor law. In at-will employment, an employer has the right to hire people and let people go at their discretion, which allows them to best adjust to their business needs,” said Reilly.