California Lawmakers: Leave the FAST Recovery Act in 2021

Last year, union-backed state Rep. Lorena Gonzalez and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) attempted a regulatory takeover of the California fast food industry by a state appointed unelected council. Gonzalez’s legislation, entitled the “FAST Recovery Act,” pointed to a severely biased study authored by reliably left-wing University of California-Berkeley researchers entitled “The Fast-Food Industry and COVID-19 in Los Angeles.” The authors argued the state’s fast food industry was a hub of coronavirus outbreaks.

As a remedy, Gonzalez and the SEIU suggested a state-appointed sectoral bargaining council should dictate wage and other workplace requirements for the entire fast food industry.

A press statement issued by the SEIU brought the true motivations behind the bill to light, calling for “a voice on the job” for fast food workers. In other words, this is another ploy similar to  the “Fight for $15” movement to unionize the industry.

How would this help the industry overcome COVID-19 struggles, or outbreaks of any other contagious disease for that matter? It probably wouldn’t.

Analysis of California state employment and public health data in 2021 reveals there is actually a positive correlation between an industry’s rate of union membership and incidences of COVID-19. In fact, some of the most heavily unionized industries have had far more coronavirus cases as a percentage of total employees.

The allegation that the fast food industry needs union representation and an unelected council to regulate workplace standards because of its track record in preventing COVID-19 outbreaks doesn’t hold up.

On one hand, outbreaks and cases are in some cases comparable between union-heavy industries and non-union-heavy industries, meaning a larger union presence does not have a discernible impact on employees getting COVID-19. For example, Education Services and Health Care have nearly identical rates of outbreaks (i.e. cases linked to a common origin) as a percentage of total employees, but Health Care has half the union membership rate.

On the other hand, some of the industries with the highest rate of union representation have had significantly larger COVID-19 outbreaks and cases.

  • For example, Administration, Support, and Waste Management has only 4% union members and the number of cases represented only 0.06% of total industry employment in 2021. In comparison, Public Administration – the industry with the highest union density (34.8%) – had a 94 percent higher rate of COVID-19 cases with respect to total employees (cases represented 1.00% of total industry employment).

  • Accommodation and Food Services, which includes fast food establishments, has even lower union representation (1.6% of employees), and still has roughly 75 percent lower case rate compared with Public Administration (cases represented only 0.26% of total employment).

This argument is even stronger when looking at the severity of outbreaks (i.e. linked cases within an establishment) experienced by highly-unionized industries compared with Accommodation and Food Services. Two of the industries with largest union membership have significantly high average cases per outbreak compared to less-unionized industries. We could argue this means outbreaks were more severe and/or less contained in higher-unionized industries.

  • Public admin (34.8% union membership) and Transportation/warehousing (17% union membership) had an average of 14.4 and 11.7 cases per recorded outbreak, respectively.

  • Accommodation and Food Services averaged only 6 cases per outbreak, with all industries with less than 10% union membership averaging roughly 6.5 cases per outbreak.

The FAST Recovery Act failed to survive in last year’s legislative session. State Representative Lorena Gonzalez has moved on from the state Assembly to head the California Labor Federation, a conglomerate of more than 1,200 AFL-CIO and other unions, which supports reviving this bill. The SEIU has already mobilized rallies to push state lawmakers to bring it back.

The FAST Recovery Act represents a union power grab with little recourse for actual employers. Instead of a sound measure to reduce disease outbreaks, lawmakers should see the proposal for what it truly is, an attempt to give near-unilateral control to unions over an entire industry.

Data note: Employment data (California) was taken from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, Union density data (national) was taken from Barry T. Hirsch and David A. Macpherson, Union Membership and Coverage Database from the CPS. All analysis was done by EPI.