Photo: Flickr

You can now add the Labor Department to the growing list of US government agencies where workers are speaking out against their new leadership.

Politico’s “Morning Shift” newsletter reports today that “current and former” Labor Department employees are circulating and adding their names to an open letter asking the Senate not to confirm Andrew Puzder as Labor Secretary. (It’s unclear how many signatures the letter has at this point.) Puzder, you may recall, is coming directly from a position as the CEO of Hardees and Carl’s Jr., where he became famous for speaking out against wage increases and hailing the coming of automation that would reduce his own human work force. Now, the very people he would supervise if he gets confirmed are speaking out against his business practices, his treatment of his own employees, and even his personal conduct.

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Since we have this opportunity, here is a 2014 Associated Press photo of him hanging out with Sports Illustrated model Hannah Ferguson in one of his restaurants. She looks so happy.

The full text of the letter is below.

Letter to the Senate HELP Committee

Dear Members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions,

We are a collection of current and former career civil servants at the U.S. Department of Labor (the “Department”). We write in our capacity as private citizens to express our serious concerns about Mr. Andrew Puzder’s nomination to serve as the Secretary of Labor, and to request that the Committee vote against Mr. Puzder’s nomination. None of us has joined a letter like this one before; we feel compelled to do so now because of our serious concerns as to whether Mr. Puzder would be able or willing to serve as a conscientious steward of the statutes that the Department is charged with enforcing and the precious rights that the Department is responsible for protecting. We believe that three specific factors disqualify Mr. Puzder from serving as the head of an agency whose primary mission is to protect America’s workforce: (1) Mr. Puzder’s own business practices; (2) his derisive public comments about his restaurants’ employees and other low-wage workers; and (3) his equally troubling public comments and behavior towards women.

First, we are alarmed that Mr. Puzder has presided over a company, CKE Restaurants, whose franchises have repeatedly been found responsible by the Department for violating employment laws—namely, the Fair Labor Standards Act and Occupational Safety and Health Act. It is true that there may be worse offenders in the fast food industry. Nonetheless, conducting business in an industry where others routinely violate the law is no license for engaging in similar conduct. The Secretary of Labor should be someone who exhibits exemplary behavior as an employer, not someone for whom violations of employment laws is routine.

In the anti-discrimination context, Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. have had more federal discrimination lawsuits brought against them since 2000, when Mr. Puzder took over, than any other major hamburger chain. At least one of these cases has resulted in a consent agreement with CKE itself, not merely with its franchisees, implicating Mr. Puzder’s failure to take the necessary steps to eliminate CKE’s discriminatory practices. Although the Department does not enforce Title VII, the Department does enforce anti-discrimination law in other contexts, such as in our review of federal contractors’ compliance with anti-discrimination mandates. The Secretary of Labor should be a leader in opposing employment discrimination, not the head of a company that is a leading defendant in discrimination lawsuits.

It is also true that many of the violations at CKE restaurants have occurred in facilities operated by franchisees rather than by CKE itself. However, our experience as the guardians of our nation’s employment laws has taught us that such violations often occur as the result of incentives or practices created by the franchisor. We were therefore unsurprised to see a recent report that CKE corporate has apparently sent a memorandum to its franchisees setting forth a company policy that workers are prohibited from speaking to the press. When franchisors wish to impose policies on franchisees and take a strong stand against violations committed by their franchisees, they have the means to do so: most franchise agreements require franchisees to comply with the law and not to generate negative publicity. We are not aware of any instances in which Mr. Puzder elected to use such provisions to curb the unlawful behavior of his franchisees. Notably, the franchisor of the world’s largest restaurant chain has done so.

Regardless of whether CKE, as a franchisor, is legally liable for the violations perpetrated by its franchisees, it has a moral obligation to use its considerable power over its franchisees to ensure that they are complying with the law. A Secretary of Labor who has experience in business could well provide a valuable perspective that would help inform the policy decisions the Department makes every day. However, such an individual should be a leader in his or her own industry in complying with the law—not someone who has benefited from violations of the law, even if formal legal structures protect him and his company from liability.

Our concerns about Mr. Puzder’s business practices are magnified by his public comments that demonstrate hostility to the laws that the Department enforces. We are particularly disturbed by Mr. Puzder’s widely publicized comment that replacing employees with automated machines would be desirable because machines are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.” Our concern about this comment is not the acknowledgement that work is becoming more automated—the rise of automation is a reality that it is proper, even wise, for a Secretary of Labor to acknowledge.

However, Mr. Puzder’s remarks reveal insensitivity to employees’ rights, their needs as human beings, and the importance of protections against discrimination. We fear that Mr. Puzder’s comments evince hostility to the enforcement of workers’ rights that is antithetical to the public-facing role that the Secretary of Labor must play. The Secretary of Labor is the highest public official tasked with protecting workers against employers who discriminate against them, fail to maintain a safe workplace, or deny employees statutory rights to take leave. Many of us regularly interact with workers as part of our duties, and those interactions have taught us that workers listen to what the Department’s leaders say and take cues from them when deciding whether and how to exercise their rights. Having a Secretary of Labor who has publicly complained that his own workers demand vacation, compensation for injuries, and the right not to suffer discrimination would send a terrible message to workers considering whether to turn to the Department for protection and to vindicate their rights. That message, if associated with the Secretary of Labor, would undermine the Department’s mission.

We are similarly concerned about Mr. Puzder’s comments about his restaurants’ employees as being (at varying times) either “the worst of the worst” or “the best of the worst.” We find extremely troubling Mr. Puzder’s degrading tone towards his own restaurants’ employees and other low-wage restaurant workers. No individual deserves being described as “the worst” merely because he or she is employed in a low-wage industry or lacks education or job training. Such descriptions further stigmatize a struggling subset of workers in ways that are harmful and hurtful to them and those of us who care about them. Such comments also express a lack of empathy for and understanding of the struggles and challenges faced by large numbers of vulnerable American workers. We believe that such empathy and understanding are critical qualifications in a Secretary of Labor, regardless of what policy solutions that Secretary may choose to offer to address the problems that low-wage workers face.

We are also extremely concerned about Mr. Puzder’s comments about women. Striving for equality for women in the workplace is central to the efforts of the Department. Mr. Puzder’s enthusiastic embrace of the sexualized advertisements his company has run makes us worried that Mr. Puzder is ill-fit to grapple with the subtle ways that perceptions of women in the workplace affect their everyday working experience. (One of us once heard a colleague ask, quite seriously, whether it would violate workplace rules of civility and prohibitions against sexual harassment to view Mr. Puzder’s ads on a government computer. We think the question is a good one.) Mr. Puzder has proudly embraced those sexualized advertisements. He not only said that, “I don’t have a problem with our ads,” but even went so far as to boast that his brand has taken on his own personality. Mr. Puzder unapologetically declares, “ugly ones [i.e., women] don’t sell burgers.” A nominee to become the Secretary of Labor should be ashamed of having made such a statement.

Our concerns about Mr. Puzder’s attitudes towards women are exacerbated by the allegations we have heard regarding his personal involvement in acts of domestic violence. Although Mr. Puzder’s ex-wife has subsequently withdrawn her allegations, the fact that she aired them anonymously on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”—something she would have no incentive to do if her charges were being made falsely for personal gain—gives us pause about Mr. Puzder’s personal conduct. These allegations, combined with Mr. Puzder’s sexualizing comments about the women in his commercials, make us worry that Mr. Puzder is incapable of fostering a supportive and fair workplace for the thousands of women who work at the Department and the millions of working women across our nation.

Because of his business practices and his degrading public comments about low-wage workers and women, we strongly urge the Committee to vote against Mr. Puzder’s nomination as Secretary of Labor. Our concerns about Mr. Puzder are not premised on any policy disagreements some of us may have with him. Rather, we firmly believe that this nominee has not demonstrated a sufficient commitment to, or faith in, the laws that the Department is charged with enforcing. We do not take this step lightly; we take it because America’s workers deserve better. We thank you for considering our views.

If you are a current Department of Labor employee who would like to share your thoughts on Andrew Puzder, email me. Anonymity guaranteed.