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Labor

On Tuesday, New York City Council members introduced major legislation that, if passed, would upend the workweek for employees in the fast food industry. The Fast Food Worker Empowerment Bill and a cluster of Fair Work Week Bills would eliminate on-call scheduling, ensure that workers know their shifts two weeks in advance, give existing employees first dibs on open shifts, and — in a particularly original move — make it easy for fast food workers (who don’t always have bank accounts, Buzzfeed points out) to fund advocacy organizations directly from their paychecks.

The proposed reforms sound small: transparent scheduling, a pathway to full-time employment, access to an advocacy organization—if not actually a union. But coupled with New York City’s phase-in of a $15 minimum wage for fast food workers, which will be in full effect by the beginning of 2019, they add up to major reform. This is a big deal.

“This bill will allow fast food workers to create an organization, gather their financial resources and focus on the issues that are important to them as working families.”

Up first: the Fast Food Worker Empowerment Bill. It’s the first of its kind in the country. This one, if passed, will legally protect (and help fund) nonprofits that advocate for fast food industry workers. It’ll mean that employees can ask that contributions are withheld from their paychecks—contributions which go directly to those non-profits. (This is, of course, voluntary.) Those organizations “will allow them to educate their coworkers about their rights on the job and advocate in their communities for policies they need, like access to affordable housing and immigration reform. This bill will allow fast food workers to create an organization, gather their financial resources and focus on the issues that are important to them as working families,” Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland said in a press release. Sound like a union? Cora Lewis over at Buzzfeed News gives a great explanation on why it’s not quite a union, why fast food workers haven’t been able to unionize, and why advocacy organizations like this might be more important than ever.

Second and potentially broader: the Fair Work Week Bills. Remember that New Yorker article from September 2014 that chronicled the Fight for $15? Here’s a line from it: “And none of the employees seem to know, from week to week, when, exactly, they will work. The crew-scheduling software used by McDonald’s is reputed to be sophisticated, but to the workers it seems mindless and opaque. The coming week’s schedule is posted on Saturday evenings.”

The premise is simple: If a shift comes available, it has to be offered to existing employees before new employees are hired.

That might change soon. The Fair Work Week legislation mandates that employees know their schedules two weeks in advance, and employers are penalized for noncompliance. It also penalizes “clopenings,” or back-to-back shifts at night and the following morning. And in the retail sector, it bans (or at least penalizes) the practice of on-call scheduling during busy seasons.

But perhaps the most significant element of the new legislation is what its backers are calling the “pathway to full-time work.” The premise is simple: If a shift comes available, it has to be offered to existing employees before new employees are hired. Seems obvious, right? But that’s not how it works today—in fact, some of the hourly employees at McDonald’s profiled in that New Yorker piece suspected their hours had been docked as a result of their involvement with the Fight for $15, though they couldn’t prove it. And fast food chains have reason to hire lots of part-time workers rather than keep fewer full-time workers: Obama’s healthcare plan mandates employer-provided health benefits to full-time employees. Of course, this new law won’t stop employers from cutting shifts entirely or replacing people with robots, as McDonald’s is planning to do (see our reporting from last week). But it does provide a tentative path forward for fast food industry employees, who are no longer the stoned teenagers pop culture would have us believe. The New York Times reports their median age is 29, and a quarter of them are raising families. Maybe soon, those people will be eligible for benefits.

H. Claire Brown

A North Carolina native, Claire Brown joins The New Food Economy after working on the editorial team at Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. She won the New York Press Club's Nellie Bly Cub Reporter award in 2017. Follow her at @hclaire_brown.