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May 22, 2019

Don’t fire me without just cause: A fast-food worker makes the case for City Council legislation

February 21, 2019
Asking for a fair shake. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

For nearly four years, I have been a full-time student by day and a fast food worker by night, working as a crew trainer or often at the drive-thru window at the McDonald’s at 840 Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn.

That is, until my manager fired me unfairly two days before Thanksgiving last year.

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Unfair and unceremonious job termination for nonexistent or trumped up reasons, fear and retaliation are what we workers deal with most often in the fast food industry. I’ve seen co-workers fired because the manager was in a bad mood or, in one worker’s case, a manager said she had to go because she created “bad vibes.”

Managers rampantly reduce workers’ hours so much that they have no choice but to quit because they cannot survive on what they earn from so few hours of work.

In my case, my manager added a shift to my schedule at a time that I had informed him I would not be available to work. I changed my schedule to accommodate the extra shift, but I then had a personal emergency where my landlord was arrested and left her infant daughter in my care.

I called my manager well in advance of the shift to let him know I couldn’t make it to work. He was understanding over the phone, but when I came in for my next shift, he fired me, citing a list of write-ups I had never seen before.

This kind of unfairness is one of the reasons why my co-workers and I are organizing support for a bill that members of the New York City Council have introduced. The legislation would establish a new standard so that when we are fired, we can appeal to an independent arbitrator. If it turns out our dismissal was for no good reason, there can be damages.

This would finally hold fast food giants like McDonald’s accountable, address the huge power imbalance and put the burden of proving legitimate reasons for termination back where it belongs, on global fast-food chains. Workers like me need some protection and that starts with our employers demonstrating real, serious, work-performance issues before termination or reducing our hours.

New York City has a large and growing fast food industry in which more than 67,000 people, predominantly women of color, work. We are doing everything that society is asking of us — getting up before dawn or working overnight; commuting long hours to work; doing dangerous, physically demanding work; and missing meals with families.

In exchange, we are often faced with impossible choices: endure hostile and dangerous working conditions, leave or be fired and face financial struggle without a job. This is simply unacceptable.

It might be easy to overlook us and see what we do as dead-end jobs being done by teenagers looking for pocket money. I am living proof that you can work in fast food and live a life of purpose. I am a 22-year-old African-American woman and, with some help from financial aid but mostly on what I earn working in this industry, I will graduate this June with a degree in criminal justice, another vital step in my ambition to become a lawyer.

My passion is to fight for justice wherever it is needed. I am doing my part to get the just-cause law passed because I see it as a beacon of light for hard-working New Yorkers to finally have the peace of mind that comes with knowing a hard day’s work will be compensated fairly, that we will be treated with the dignity and respect we deserve.

Wright lives in Brooklyn.

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