Fired on a Whim: The Precarious Existence of NYC Fast-Food Workers


Throughout New York City, fast-food workers’ lives are thrown into disarray when their employers fire them arbitrarily, often after workers have prioritized physically demanding fast-food jobs over time with their families, educational goals, and their own health. Many people are surprised to learn that their employer can terminate them whenever they choose, for almost any reason or even no reason at all, and that employees have no right to receive a warning nor the opportunity to correct simple mistakes before being fired. Employers can also dramatically reduce work hours, leaving workers earning so little that they are effectively forced to quit. A vindictive or biased employer can slash benefits and wages, change schedules, and demote or transfer employees with few restrictions, forcing thousands of New York City families to live in a state of constant uncertainty. A late arrival due to train delays, a perceived “bad attitude,” or a single customer complaint may be enough to end even long-term workers’ employment.

This model is called “at-will” employment, and it sows chaos throughout already-unstable workplaces. That chaos trickles down to the families and communities that these workers support, causing stress, fear, and instability which wreaks havoc on families who are already living paycheck to paycheck. For families with little to no savings, struggling to survive in an increasingly expensive city, the sudden loss of income can precipitate homelessness or require workers to rely on government assistance to put food on the table.

The lack of legal protections against unfair termination exacerbates mistreatment in an industry overwhelmingly powered by women, immigrants, and people of color. Some of the arbitrary treatment reported by fast-food workers—firing one worker for the same conduct that is tolerated in others—is likely animated by racial and gender bias. Other workers who have been fired or had their hours slashed suspect they are being punished for speaking up about abuse, wage theft, or hazardous working conditions.

Yet many terminations motivated by bias or retaliation against activism are not covered by existing legal protections, or even if they are illegal, are impossible to prove. By sowing fear that keeps workers from speaking up, the at-will model leaves workers vulnerable to wage theft, high rates of injury, and pervasive sexual harassment.

New findings from a survey of 539 New York City fastfood workers confirm that job loss and reductions in hours are rampant and cause severe financial hardship. Survey responses show that:

  • Fast-food employers terminate workers with alarming frequency. Fifty percent of workers surveyed had been fired, laid off, or compelled to quit a fast-food job due to intolerable working conditions. Of respondents who reported job loss, over a quarter experienced multiple job losses within the fast-food industry.
  • Drastic cuts in hours are common. In a sample of 237 fast-food workers, 58 percent reported having experienced a significant and ongoing reduction in hours in one or more jobs.* On average, these workers lost 14 hours of work per week. For a full-time worker, that represents a one-third reduction in income.
  • Many workers are denied even a basic explanation when terminated. When asked whether they were given a reason for being fired or let go from a fast-food job, 65 percent of workers reported that in at least one instance they had not been given a reason for termination.
  • Termination throws workers into poverty. Sixty-two percent of respondents who lost a fast-food job or suffered a cut in hours experienced financial hardship as a result, including food insecurity, housing instability, and loss of resources to pay for childcare. Others were evicted, forced to move, or had to drop out of school.

New York City does not have to tolerate this abuse of its most vulnerable workforce. By enacting “Just Cause” legislation, the city could require fast-food chains to demonstrate a legitimate reason for terminating a worker or reducing their hours. This policy would hold fast-food giants accountable, address a severe power imbalance, and bring stability and security to more than 67,000 fast-food workers, and to the families and the communities in which they play an integral role.

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