Anyone who needed confirmation of Ronald Reagan’s famous axiom that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’” should look to recent actions in California. Assembly Bill 257, which is now on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk, dramatically reshapes the Golden State’s restaurant industry, essentially because the legislature considers fast-food workers too feeble-minded to make decisions for themselves.
The bill would create a new council to regulate large fast-food restaurants throughout California. It charges this council to “promulgate minimum fast-food restaurant employment standards, including, as appropriate, standards on wages, working conditions, and training.” It states that the council can establish a minimum wage for 2023 of as much as $22 per hour — far higher than the $15.50 per hour minimum wage applying to other California businesses as of Jan. 1.
Along with a higher minimum wage just for fast-food workers, the bill also contemplates “maximum hours of work” as one of the standards the council will impose on all fast-food restaurants located in California. In so doing, it reveals the paternalistic premise behind the legislation: that lawmakers don’t consider people who work in fast-food establishments capable of making “good” decisions on their own.
A requirement imposed by the new council stating that fast-food employees could only work, say, 40 hours per week for the same employer presupposes that anyone wishing to exceed such limits would make a decision frowned upon by the legislature and the bureaucrats appointed to the council. So, as in Reagan’s mantra, the council will “help” these people by preventing them from working more.
What would result from the “assistance” provided by a prohibition on additional work? People wanting to earn more income would need to obtain a second job, whether at a different fast-food establishment or outside of the restaurant industry entirely. Either way, people would face additional inconvenience from navigating two jobs — not least a second set of commuting costs, at a time when gas prices in California still average roughly $5.25 per gallon.
The same logic applies to the council’s ability to impose higher minimum wage requirements just within the fast-food sector. Imposing a higher wage standard of $20 or $22 per hour implies that a person willing to work at an establishment for “only” $15.50 per hour has not made the “correct” choice — at least within the government’s eyes.
Critics of the above arguments might assert that working 40 hours per week at $20 per hour at a single establishment would provide a better working environment than someone working 50 hours per week at two establishments while earning $15.50 or $16 per hour. In some situations, that could well prove true.
But those working conditions might not suit a working mother who needs split shifts to navigate her children’s school schedule or someone who wants to work at a particular restaurant right in the neighborhood, rather than at a McDonald’s across town. Creating a one-size-fits-all working environment, as the regulations mandated by the new fast-food council would do, reduces the flexibility that many workers need and value most. That lost flexibility could mean significant numbers of fast-food employees leave the sector entirely, transferring to other industries that would not face these new demands.
The fact that the California legislature saw fit to pass this legislation at a time when businesses nationwide face a historic labor shortage demonstrates the tragically foolish logic behind Assembly Bill 257. Employees already have significant leverage to demand concessions from businesses regarding pay and working conditions. They don’t need unelected bureaucrats meddling in ways that will limit people’s ability to find a working environment best suited to their needs, just because the government is “here to help.”
If lawmakers think their constituents too stupid to make “smart” choices, they should at least have the courage to come out and say so. Regardless, Newsom should put aside this patronizing attempt at progressive paternalism and veto A.B. 257.