California’s $20 minimum wage is official. Now some fast-food workers say their hours are being cut

 April 17, 2024

California’s $20 minimum wage is official. Now some fast-food workers say their hours are being cut

Two workers talk about the fight for a higher minimum wage, and the changes they’ve seen since its implementation on April 1.

Laura Reyes was in the middle of her shift as a cook at Burger King in San Jose, when she started feeling a sharp pain in her abdomen and lower back. As the day went on, Reyes started bleeding, and the pain became so severe that she felt like she might die. She had asked more than once if she could leave work, but her managers would not allow it. “I was really worried,” she told Fast Company through a translator. “In that moment, I didn’t know I was pregnant.” 

Reyes later found out that it was actually an ectopic pregnancy, which can be life-threatening if untreated. After taking five weeks off for medical treatment, Reyes had made a full recovery and returned to work—only to find that her hours had been cut without explanation. Her hours were eventually restored after Reyes and other workers went on strike. 

In 2023, after years of worker activism and protests led to the adoption of a historic new law in California that is intended to secure higher pay for fast-food workers like Reyes, whose livelihoods are often shaped by the whims of managers and corporate leaders. When the law took effect this month, the hourly minimum wage was boosted to $ 20 for half a million workers at fast-food restaurants in the state—a significant increase from the previous pay floor of $ 16 an hour. 

But the law has faced ongoing resistance from fast-food chains and franchise owners, despite economic studies that indicate minimum-wage increases don’t lead to major job losses. (Some studies have found that a higher minimum wage can lead to reduced hours and other fluctuations, though economists claim that workers would still see a net benefit.) Many franchise owners have raised their prices, and some are doubling down on automated services that are already common at fast-food restaurants; others claim they can only afford to pay the minimum wage if they scale back workers’ hours or trim head count.

Fast-food workers like Reyes are already feeling the effects of Corporate America’s response to the new wage requirements. Over the past few weeks, she has seen her hours get cut yet again, by four or five hours per week, on average. “The hours have been reduced for everyone at my store,” she says. “I don’t expect to see the pay bump as much as I hoped to. But I’m hoping this is temporary.” Reyes also claims that as of April 1, there are fewer people staffed per shift. (Burger King did not respond to a request for comment.) 

It’s not just Reyes and her colleagues who have reported that their hours and head count have been reduced as a result of the new minimum wage. At a McDonald’s location in Vallejo, Fernando Valencia has seen a similar shift. “[We] were celebrating the raise because we knew it would help us take care of our families,” he told Fast Company through a translator. “But now, all of my coworkers [have] gotten their hours cut.”

Much like Reyes, Valencia had lost hours and shifts even before the wage increase, which he believes was retaliation for filing a wage theft complaint with the California Labor Commissioner’s Office. (McDonald’s was not immediately available for comment.) Allegations of wage theft are not unusual at fast-food restaurants in California: In a 2022 report produced by the Fight for $ 15 campaign, which surveyed more than 400 fast-food workers in the state, 85% said they had experienced wage theft, while 57% reported multiple forms of wage theft.

Fast Company spoke to Valencia about his experience working at McDonald’s and the changes he has seen in recent weeks since the new minimum wage law went into effect. His account has been edited for space and clarity.

“My hours were already being taken away”

I was making $ 17.50 as a manager. My hours were already being taken away before April 1, due to retaliation. In 2021, I put in a complaint of wage theft because my manager would make me punch in with two different names—one thumb for one name, and one thumb for the other name—to not pay me overtime. At the time, I didn’t know that after working 40 hours per week, you should be getting paid overtime. One paycheck would be handed to me in cash. I found the campaign Fight for $ 15, and that’s when I learned this is actually illegal. So I spoke up and went on strike; and ever since then, I have been retaliated [against], getting my hours cut and days taken away from my work week.

I was working seven days a week [and] over eight hours each day. Once I submitted my complaint, they cut me back to 40 hours and five days a week. Then it went down to three days a week. That’s when I started to look for a new job. I got a job [at a taqueria] and cut back my schedule at McDonald’s to one day a week. The reason why I continue working there for just one day a week is because I don’t want my coworkers to think that I got fired due to going on strike. 

“The raise is something historic”

When the month started, we were really excited. The raise is something historic. My coworkers didn’t even believe me when I told them about the raise, until our managers gave us a paper to sign. But then hours started to get cut. As a manager, my coworkers would ask me: Why are my hours getting cut if I’m a good worker? Other coworkers would ask me to talk to my higher-ups to recommend more hours for them. But corporations are always going to find a way to exploit us. The franchises and corporations are trying to get away with cutting back our raise by taking hours and days of work.

I used to close [the store] with four people, but now it’s only two to three people. This is not okay. This is because McDonald’s will never want to lose. They have been raising the prices forever: The sauces are no longer free. The price of fries is almost $ 5. All of these prices have been rising way before the news broke about the $ 20 [minimum wage]. This is an injustice, and I want my coworkers to join the union to fight for a dignified salary and schedule. We need at least 40 hours a week to feel the impact of the raise.

“I want to convince my coworkers to speak up”

[At my other job], It’s $ 17 an hour and [the pay] won’t be impacted by the $ 20 raise. Right now, I am looking to return to fast food [full time]. Unfortunately I haven’t been given any more hours at McDonald’s. I have been asking for more days, but they say no while they continue to hire and bring in new workers. 

For me, it hasn’t been easy because of the complaint I submitted. I am also an active member of the Fight for $ 15 campaign; to my employer, I am a danger because I informed my coworkers about their rights and what’s illegal, and I tell them to speak up. I’m submitting applications at other restaurants, and they tell me they’ll call me, but they don’t.

Either way, I am considering my options—[maybe] to move to another city and start over, like San Jose or Sacramento. But I also don’t want to leave. I don’t want to give up my job at McDonald’s and have my coworkers think I got fired for speaking out. I want to convince my coworkers to speak up. That’s the message I want to send to other workers—to not let yourself be intimidated. This is temporary. We already proved that we could win a historic wage increase. Now we’re going to fight to have our hours returned to us.

California’s $20 minimum wage is official. Now some fast-food workers say their hours are being cut

Fast Company