Act Locally » August 14, 2009
Fast Food, Slow Justice
Workers protest Yum! Brands firings.
Antonio De La Cruz had been working at KFC for 10 years when he received a letter from the company informing him that unless he could provide an accurate name and Social Security number within the next three months, he would be fired. Dated March 6, it was effectively a pink slip for De La Cruz, who kept working until the deadline only because of a manager’s encouragement. “She said, ‘You’re a great worker. Stick around–they might give you an extension, or something might change,’ ” De La Cruz recalls.
Nothing changed, though, and as De La Cruz couldn’t produce the necessary documents, he was fired on June 12. He is one of more than 200 workers at Yum! Brands restaurants–KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell–in greater Chicago and Madison, Wisc., who have been fired on the basis of Social Security “no-match” letters.
On July 10, De La Cruz and other workers joined labor, religious and immigrant rights groups in 30 cities for a National Day of Action to protest the firings. “I wanted to let the public and media know what KFC is doing, and that it’s an injustice,” says De La Cruz.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) sends no-match letters to employees and employers to notify them if the Social Security number listed on a worker’s W-2 does not match SSA records. The letters’ ostensible purpose is to get workers to correct the mismatches so that they can receive credit for their earnings. Letters sent to employers specifically warn against using the letters “to take any adverse action against an employee … such as laying off, suspending, firing, or discriminating against that individual.”
“We believe that it’s completely illegal and completely immoral,” says Leone Jose Bicchieri, executive director of the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative (CWC), which along with the Workers’ Rights Center (WRC) in Madison has been spearheading the workers’ protests.
Nonetheless, Social Security no-matches are often a sign that the worker in question is undocumented. In 2007, under the leadership of then-Secretary Michael Chertoff, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) attempted to implement a rule that would have required businesses to fire employees who could not resolve the no-match discrepancy within 90 days. Before it could go into effect, however, a federal judge ruled it illegal. The Obama administration recently dropped the proposed measure.
Last February, several dozen workers at Chicago-area KFCs and Pizza Huts contacted the CWC to report that they had been fired based on questions regarding their Social Security numbers and work status. In March, the WRC heard a similar story from a group of former Taco Bell employees in Madison.
“[Yum! Brands] seems to have jumped the gun on proposed rule changes, and now they have egg on their face for implementing a rule that the government has now withdrawn,” says Patrick Hickey, executive director of the WRC, referring to the proposed Bush-Chertoff rule. Due to the current economic downswing, he says, it is easy to find replacement workers, and the company may be taking advantage of the opportunity to fire people and fill their slots with workers who are less likely to be undocumented.
After a series of meetings with employees from five different restaurants, the Madison workers decided they wanted to take action. “They felt there was discrimination in both the way they were fired and the way they’d been treated on the job,” Hickey says. Nineteen out of the 28 fired workers in Madison have filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that they received disparate assignments and treatment while working at Taco Bell. “There are certain expectations from Latinos–they wouldn’t get as many breaks, and were expected to do harder work or more work,” Hickey says. He also cites discriminatory English-only policies and fewer opportunities for training.
The WRC launched a campaign to draw attention to the issue, holding demonstrations that culminated at the July 10 protest. “We’ve been trying to reach out to Yum! Brands, to make sure they understand that what they’re doing is not necessary,” Hickey says. “They should put a moratorium on it until the government has the opportunity to re-look at immigration.”
Yum! Brands has met the protests with silence. When asked its reasons for the firings, the company states that upon receiving no-match letters for some employees, “we accordingly asked these employees to clear up the discrepancy and provided them several months to do so. At all times, we have taken into account both our legal obligations and the well-being of our employees.”
Though the protests originally called for Yum! Brands to rehire workers, Bicchieri says that they are now simply pushing for an end to the firings. They hope to dissuade Yum!–the largest fast food restaurant corporation in the world–from implementing the policy on a national scale, and to stop other business from following suit. “It’s like they’re testing it out, to see what the public reaction is,” he says, pointing out that the firings have thus far been confined to Illinois and Wisconsin.
Eclipsing any one business, however, is the shadow of federal immigration policy–the fear of a crackdown and the hope for reform. “There’s been a sort of game the government and businesses have been playing, knowing [the employment of undocumented workers] is going on and realizing the economy needs these workers to continue to profit,” says Hickey. The Obama administration has done little to reassure businesses on this front, with the DHS announcing in July that it would audit 652 companies nationwide to ensure their compliance with employment eligibility verification laws. “It’s not a real solution to the issue of immigration–it’s more of a PR move,” Hickey says. “The solution to all this is for the government to let people who have been working in this country for 20 years have legal status.”
Robin Peterson is a former managing editor of the Chicago Weekly, an alternative weekly of Chicago's South Side. Originally from Troy, Ohio, she attended the University of Chicago and is a former editorial intern at In These Times.