Judge temporarily blocks California fast food wages law

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A judge on Friday temporarily blocked the state of California from implementing a landmark new law aimed at raising wages and improving working conditions for fast food workers.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne Chang’s order came in response to a lawsuit by restaurant industry groups that are seeking a referendum on the November 2024 ballot in a bid to overturn the law.

The law establishes a 10-member council empowered to set minimum wages as well as standards for hours and working conditions for California’s fast food workers.

State and county elections officials are still verifying whether the referendum proposal received enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, a determination expected by the end of January. If that happens, the law would be halted from taking effect until voters weigh in.

In the meantime, the state Department of Industrial Relations said it plans to begin implementing the law on Sunday. That could include clearing the way for appointments to the Fast Food Council. But any wage increases or other changes couldn’t take effect until at least October, meaning the law would have no immediate impact on worker pay.

The International Franchise Association and the National Restaurant Association said state law requires the state to sit tight until the status of the referendum is determined. The industry groups submitted more than 1 million signatures from voters in support of the referendum, well above the roughly 620,000 required by state law.

“California bureaucrats, at the behest of special interests, are taking an unprecedented step to violate their Constitution and the will of more than one million voters who asked for the Fast Food Council to be stopped via the referendum process,” Matt Haller, chief executive officer and president of the International Franchise Association, said in a statement.

The Service Employees International Union, which drove support for the creation of the council, blasted the lawsuit and several companies by name, including McDonald’s, Chipotle and Starbucks.

“This cowardly tactic comes right out of the corporate playbook Californians have, unfortunately, come to know too well,” said Tia Orr, executive director of SEIU California, in a statement.

“When corporations fail to halt progressive legislation in the legislature, they pivot to bankrolling ballot measures in an attempt to circumvent democracy and the will of the people,” she added.

If the signature drive doesn’t qualify for a referendum and the law moves forward, fast food wages could be raised as high as $22 an hour by the end of 2023. California’s minimum wage for all workers is set to rise to $15.50 an hour starting Sunday.

Chang, the judge, scheduled a hearing on the matter for Jan. 13. She also wrote that restaurant groups have failed to prove they properly served the state with the lawsuit, and she ordered them to do so.

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