Puzder’s fast-food allies look to defend nominee from blitz

Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017 1:24 PM
Several fast-food chain executives are planning to push for CKE Restaurants CEO Andrew Puzder’s confirmation as the next labor secretary.

Fast-food executives are rushing to defend the record of labor secretary nominee Andy Puzder, the controversial restaurant-chain leader who Democrats are targeting for defeat over his opposition to a higher national minimum wage.

The International Franchise Association is calling on its 15,000 members to sign a letter that will be delivered to the Senate before Puzder’s confirmation hearing for a post in Donald Trump’s Cabinet. So far, about 500 to 600 companies have signed their names to the letter, including Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen Inc., according to spokesman Matt Haller.

Puzder runs closely held CKE Restaurants – the owner of the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s fast-food chains – and has been an outspoken critic of Obama administration labor policies such as boosting the federal minimum wage and expanding the number of workers eligible for overtime pay. While those positions have made him a target for Democrats, they have won him support among owners of franchised businesses.

“He’s a proven job creator,” Haller said in an interview. “He has demonstrated an ability to create opportunities at all levels of the economic spectrum, and that’s certainly something franchising does.”

Republicans have expressed confidence they can get all of Trump’s nominees confirmed, including Puzder, but Democrats such as Elizabeth Warren see the fast-food executive as a focal point for criticism. They organized a forum Tuesday about labor practices at his company.

Workers at the chain, where the 66-year-old serves as chief executive officer, complained about low pay, harassment and money missing from paychecks.

“There are people that have been working there for years and are making the same as they have when they walked in,” Lupe Guzman, a Carl’s Jr. employee from Las Vegas, said at the event. “Without a minimum-wage increase, we don’t have a chance. We can’t survive with what we are making now.”

Fight for $15, a labor organization lobbying for higher wages, is planning demonstrations at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurants on Thursday to further protest Puzder’s nomination.

A group called Restaurant Opportunities Centers United also released a survey saying that 66 percent of women at CKE restaurants experienced unwanted sexual behavior at work, compared with 40 percent of women in the industry overall. About a third of respondents said they suffered “wage-theft violations,” such as not getting mandated breaks or overtime pay.

A CKE representative declined to comment on the survey and referred questions to the president-elect’s transition team, which questioned the methodology.

“The Restaurant Opportunities Center survey – paid for by unions and special interests opposed to Andy Puzder’s nomination – is a flagrant example of ‘fake news,’” the transition team said in an emailed statement. “In a deliberate attempt to smear CKE and Mr. Puzder, ROC used leading questions and deceitful surveying tactics, such as posing as CKE corporate representatives, to fabricate results.”

The Employment Policies Institute put out its own CKE worker survey this week that painted a more favorable picture. About 92 percent of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s employees said the company was a great place to work, that survey found.

Even before this week’s flurry of criticism, Puzder’s stances had put his appointment in Democrats’ cross hairs.

Puzder’s nomination “might be the surest sign yet that the next Cabinet will be looking out for the billionaires and special interests, instead of America’s working class,” New York’s Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said in a response to Trump’s announcement of Puzder’s nomination in December.

Though Puzder’s confirmation hearing was tentatively scheduled for Jan. 17, it may be pushed back until February because of the Senate calendar.

The International Franchise Association, meanwhile, has rallied support from Fastsigns and Focus Brands – a company that owns Auntie Anne’s and Carvel restaurants – in addition to Popeyes. Like CKE, Focus Brands is backed by private equity firm Roark Capital Group.

The organization also is asking members to send individual letters to senators in support of Puzder through its Franchise Action Network. Members include franchised businesses such as maid and tax services, as well as dining chains. Puzder is on the board of the International Franchise Association.

Puzder “will be a stalwart champion for entrepreneurship,” the online form letter says. He will “reinvigorate the direction of the department, as well as the spirit of America’s business owners and workforce.”