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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Fast-food executive Andrew Puzder is a frenemy to his employees.

He’s gone out of his way to downplay the needs of his workforce. Primarily, this means those Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. workers who have joined the nationwide clamor to raise the minimum wage.

Puzder is President-elect Donald Trump’s selection for secretary of labor. Hold on to your paychecks, this could be a bumpy ride.

Raising the minimum wage, granting overtime pay, inconvenient questions about why so many burger flippers and french fry scoopers are also on public assistance — it all receives a dismissive wave from Puzder. Too much federal regulation, he says. Not good for business.

Given Puzder’s role as CEO of CKE Restaurants, Inc., this is to be expected, as were the shouts of dismay at his nomination.

One organizer (Kendall Fells) pressing to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 said Trump’s choice of Puzder was akin to “putting Bernie Madoff in charge of the Treasury.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, told the Wall Street Journal, “With Mr. Puzder, the fox is in the hen house.” She went on to say his nomination is “the greatest assault on workers that we have seen in a generation.”

A moment, please, amid the chaos of name-calling, lest we lose perspective on the complicated problems of low-wage workers and so many others who have a tenuous tether to middle-class status.

Going on four decades now, economic policy has consistently undermined wage earners in favor of pleasing corporate managers and Wall Street. The tools that have been used were widely discussed during the presidential campaign: the off-shoring of jobs, raiding pension funds, all to concentrate profits more in the hands of those at the top income brackets.

This shift basically occurred over the stretch of Puzder’s career. And it happened through the acts of Congress, the courts, state legislators and a press too eager to gulp down the spin that this was all market forces at work. Unions increasingly were seen as the bad guys, out of touch.

So when Puzder says that government needs to get out of the way of business, he finds ready ears to absorb the message. But he’s only telling a piece of the story. The dire situation that too many fast-food workers feel is not, as Puzder likes to posit, simply the work of over-regulation.

Consider the Fight for $15, raising the federal minimum wage. Fast food is where the most public of these battles has been fought, with regular protests outside America’s favorite golden arches and other venues.

The pressure would double the federal minimum wage, on the outset a seemingly an outrageous contention. Puzder has said the protesters might as well be demanding their own firing. He argues that the workers will price themselves out of a job, that bosses like him will merely find ways to offset the higher labor costs through automation, decreasing employment. And it’s true, as some restaurant jobs have been replaced by the efficiency of technology, like touch screens to order food.

But realize that we have also let the minimum wage stagnate for far too long. By some calculations, the minimum wage would be at about $21, had it been allowed to rise alongside productivity gains. That is $5 higher than what many people think is asking too much.

In more tempered writings, Puzder has indicated that he would be OK with a $9 federal minimum. Or perhaps something that eases the increased labor costs on owners over time, incremental increases. If he really gets honest, he’d have to also admit that estimates about how much cost would have to be passed onto customers is also a subject of much debate.

And states and cities have begun to raise their minimum wages, something that Puzder can’t roll back even if he is confirmed.

Despite what many people of solid middle-class status like to tell themselves, the plight of the low-wage workers whom Puzder employs, and often fights, affects you and your household. And not just if they get your order for extra ketchup correct as you go through the drive-thru.

They are connected to the slipping grasp on a chance at middle-class status that so many Americans feel viscerally. It is the anxiety that helped elect Trump.

Puzder was an early and loyal supporter to Trump. The offering of a cabinet post is his reward. The question that remains to be seen is how loyal he can be to yearnings of the American workforce.

Mary Sanchez: 816-234-4752, msanchez@kcstar.com, @msanchezcolumn

IMAGE: Andy Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants, departs after meeting with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump (R) at the main clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, U.S., November 19, 2016.  REUTERS/Mike Segar/File PIcture

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