Gavin Florence was returning to New York City from vacation last fall when his flight got delayed. He said he called his manager at a Chipotle in Manhattan to say he was going to miss his shift. A co-worker covered for him. The next day, Mr. Florence said he was fired.
Yeral Martinez, who worked at a different Manhattan Chipotle, said he was also dismissed after calling out sick because of back pain. After losing his job, he said he lost his apartment and ended up in a homeless shelter.
Fast food workers have long complained that they have little job security and are often fired for a single transgression or for seemingly trivial reasons, like not smiling enough.
The challenges they face have come to the forefront during the pandemic, as they have emerged as essential employees who have been asked to continue working even as the city went into lockdown.
But New York will soon make it harder for restaurants to dismiss them: The City Council on Thursday approved a bill that protects fast food workers from being fired without a valid reason and allows them to appeal terminations through arbitration.
New York would be the first major American city to provide such job security to workers in a large industry, labor law experts said, and could set a template for other cities and states.
The Council also approved another bill requiring fast food restaurants to conduct layoffs based on seniority.
“No one should get fired on a whim, but for years this has been the norm for fast-food workers,” said Brad Lander, a Democratic city councilman from Brooklyn, who sponsored the worker bill.
“Today they won a big victory for job stability and dignity,” he added.
Opponents, including fast food restaurants and industry groups, say the new rules will hamper their ability to manage their staff and make it harder to hire and retain the best workers at a time when the pandemic has left so many people unemployed.
The measures “are going to deal a devastating blow to the restaurant industry,” said Councilman Eric Ulrich, a Republican from Brooklyn. “We should be lifting barriers and red tape at a time like this because it’s such a pivotal moment when it comes to New York City’s economic recovery. These bills are not going to help us achieve that.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who has sought to position himself as a leading national progressive voice, said he intended to sign the bill.
“Working people have been hit hardest by the pandemic and they deserve protections and fair wages,” he said in a statement. “I’m proud to stand with fast food workers as our city creates a more equitable recovery.”
The new rules are the latest victory for fast food workers who have made New York City a laboratory of sorts for efforts to improve labor conditions. They were the first work force in the nation to stage rallies for raising the hourly minimum wage to $15.
And they were instrumental in winning another change from the city to their work rules that now requires fast food restaurants and retail stores to give employees more advance notice when their schedules are changed.
The bills regulating firings and layoffs apply to fast food chains that have at least 30 locations nationwide, including Chipotle, Domino’s, McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC, among other familiar names.
New York has about 3,000 fast food outlets that employ nearly 67,000 people, two-thirds of them women and nearly 90 percent people of color, according to the Center for Popular Democracy, an advocacy group.
A spokeswoman for Chipotle declined to discuss the cases involving Mr. Florence and Mr. Martinez because they involved personnel issues.
But the spokeswoman, Laurie Schalow, said the company was committed to providing a fair workplace.
“Chipotle’s engaged and hard-working employees are what makes us great, and we encourage our employees to contact us immediately, including through an anonymous 800 number, with any concerns so we can investigate and respond quickly to make things right,” she said in a statement.
Critics say the council legislation will do more harm than good because it will encourage restaurants to accelerate automation and reduce labor costs by not having to hire as many workers.
“It’s galling,” said Eli Freedberg, a labor lawyer whose firm represents the restaurant industry and who said the bills were a prime example of government overreach. “It changes the entire psyche and underpinning of the American employer-employee relationship.”
“Taking away employers’ rights to determine who the worst performers are and being able to easily replace the poor performers with better performers,” he added, “will result in the employer having to incur tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in defending a just cause challenge, and prevents their ability to maximize the product or service it is offering to the public.”
But Mr. Lander dismissed that argument. “Evidence from other countries shows that you can have a perfectly strong economy while protecting your workers,” he said.
About two-thirds of workers fired from fast food jobs in New York City said they had been dismissed without being given a reason, according to a survey published last year by the Center for Popular Democracy.
The Service Employees International Union and its powerful local in New York, 32BJ SEIU, had also aggressively lobbied for the new rules passed by the Council as part of its campaign to win more stringent labor protections for workers like fast food employees who do not have collective bargaining agreements.
“This is a tremendous win for not only New York’s fast food workers but also for all our essential workers, and for all Black and brown workers who have been denied the dignity and respect they deserve for far too long,” said Kyle Bragg, the president of 32BJ SEIU.
The measure was “pretty significant,” giving workers the equivalent of the kind of benefit that unions typically seek, said Samuel Estreicher, director of the Center for Labor and Employment Law at New York University.
“The basic idea of local legislation requiring just cause for termination or significant reduction of hours could catch fire across the nation,” Professor Estreicher said.
Jeremy Espinal said he asked to be transferred from one Chipotle outlet in Manhattan to another after a manager ordered him to cut 20 pounds of bell peppers within 30 minutes or risk being fired.
“I felt like I was walking on eggshells,” he said.
The council legislation, he said, “would even the playing field for workers and managers, and for workers to be able to feel more comfortable in their work environment.”