Oped: The anti-working woman labor secretary

Saru Jayaraman
Tribune NewsService

As a workers rights advocate, I work with many restaurant owners to teach them about the connection of low wages, sexualized marketing, and sexual violence and how to make workplaces both safe and supportive. Some employers are surprised to learn that mothers struggling to make ends meet are much less likely to escape violent personal relationships. Others are appalled when they realize that encouraging women to wear provocative attire to increase sales and supplement their sub-minimum tipped wage facilitates sexual harassment and violence perpetrated by both customers and supervisors.

About 50 fast food workers protest the nomination of former Hardees CEO Andrew Puzder to lead the U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, outside the current headquarters of the fast food chain in downtown St. Louis. Fast food workers claim Puzder is unfit for the position because of his policies toward employees as Hardees boss. (Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

But then there are restaurant owners like CKE Restaurants CEO Andrew Puzder, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of labor, who has profited from a marketing strategy that objectifies women by placing them in bikinis eating burgers and has employed a business model that exploits workers through low wages and untenable working conditions. Puzder has spent his career opposing and undermining the core tenets of the Labor Department. A CEO who assails basic worker protections such as overtime pay, breaks and increasing the minimum wage to a livable wage has no business leading the department whose stated mission is "to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners; ... improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights."

Puzder is an outspoken opponent of increasing the minimum wage, having obliviously asserted "no one ever intended (minimum wage jobs) would ever be something that a person could support a family on." Puzder seems unconcerned that women make up two-thirds of our low-wage workforce, and a quarter are raising children and have no choice but to support their families on minimum and sub-minimum tipped wages.

Given the connection between economic insecurity and sexual violence, low-wage women workers, particularly women of color with children, suffer disproportionately from the impacts of violence whether at home or on the job, including a lack of job advancement opportunities, absenteeism, unjust job termination, and other adverse employment actions and impacts. Even worse, in many industries where women work in isolated environments or are expected to dress more provocatively, workplace sexual harassment, sexual assault and exploitation occur at significantly higher rates. Not only do these trends depress business profits, but too many unaddressed incidents culminate with horrific acts of violence and degradation.

Puzder's general animus toward workers and his company's marketing strategy that objectifies women may in fact promote violence against women and oppress survivors.

He sees minimum wage workers as disposable and prefers machines because they 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." And when it comes to using sex to sell food, Puzder's marketing strategy reflects an unsettling personal conviction: "I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. ... I used to hear, brands take on the personality of the CEO. And ... in this case, it kind of did take on my personality." This objectification of women doesn't end with his commercials and billboards. In a just-released Restaurant Opportunities Centers United survey of hundreds of CKE workers, many women reported having been harassed by customers referencing the overly sexualized ads that Puzder uses for his Carl's Jr. and Hardee's chains. One Hardee's employee from Tennessee shared, "Customers have asked why I don't dress like the women in the commercials." A California-based Carl's Jr.'s employee said, "I continually get notes left on tables from customers, customers flirt or ask me out; I have also been followed outside the store by customers."

In addition to fostering such a working environment, Puzder opposes food stamps and housing assistance, despite the fact that public assistance programs supplement the poverty-level wages earned by most fast food workers. CKE Restaurants is a top perpetrator of wage theft, with half of Hardee's and Carl's Jr. locations committing wage violations, and has been subject to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints involving discrimination and sexual harassment. Women subject to Puzder's workplace vision could not afford to leave a batterer, their disposable jobs would constantly be at risk, they couldn't turn to the government for help supporting their families, and they might have little choice but to "sell sex" to make better tips or get the best shifts. We got a very clear picture of this vision in the survey of CKE workers, which revealed widespread sexual harassment at the restaurants. A staggering 66 percent of women at CKE Restaurants reported experiencing unwanted sexual behaviors at work.

Many employers, labor unions, anti-violence advocates and workers’ rights advocates believe in making workplaces safer and more supportive environments for women. While all stakeholders might not agree on certain specifics — such as the proper amount to increase the minimum wage — most do agree that no woman should suffer economic harm at work because she experiences violence at home, no woman should be susceptible to sexual harassment, violence or exploitation at work in order to feed her family, and there is great social, economic and moral cost when workplaces turn a blind eye to violence against women.

Yet Puzder opposes nearly every proposal, practice, policy, regulation and initiative that makes restaurant workplaces safer for women. He unapologetically pads his company's profits and his $4 million annual salary on the backs of poorly compensated and unprotected women workers who must contend with customers intentionally lured to his restaurants by images of scantily clad models eating Hardee's burgers.

On behalf of the well-being of low-wage and minimum wage workers, especially women, who deserve someone at the helm of the Department of Labor who believes in the mission of the department he leads, at his confirmation hearing, Puzder must be denied the opportunity to enter the vaulted halls of the Labor Department.

— Saru Jayaraman is a co-founder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of "Forked: A New Standard For American Dining."