Defying Industry, California Lawmakers Vote for Employer-Paid Food Training

by The Technical Blogs

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The California Legislature is moving to require employers to compensate food service employees for the cost of food safety training mandated by the state’s public health laws. If signed into law, the legislation would overturn a common practice in which employees cover the expense of obtaining the certification themselves.

The measure, Senate Bill 476, which cleared the State Senate by a wide margin in May, passed the Assembly on Tuesday, 56 to 18. After a Senate vote on concurrence with amendments, the bill will be sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has not signaled whether he will sign it or veto it. Asked for comment for this article, the governor’s office said it had nothing to report.

The bill’s sponsors cited a New York Times investigation published in January that showed how the National Restaurant Association, a lobbying group, raises millions of dollars from workers through the fees charged by a food safety training program it administers, ServSafe. The most widely used safety program in the country for food and beverage handling, it is used by waiters, cooks, bartenders and other retail food workers.

The restaurant association, a business league representing over 500,000 businesses — along with state affiliates, including the California Restaurant Association — is frequently involved in political battles against increasing the minimum wage or the subminimum wage paid to tipped workers in most states.

The investigation found that more than 3.6 million workers nationwide have paid for the industry group’s classes, bringing in roughly $25 million in revenue since 2010. That is more than the National Restaurant Association spent on lobbying during the same period and more than half of the amount association members paid in dues.

Labor leaders and some business owners said they were unaware of the arrangement.

“I had no idea that’s what they were doing,” said Christopher Sinclair, a restaurant owner from New York now based in Sacramento, who helped organize a push to outlaw the practice.

The training, costing about $15 for most workers, involves mastering information in a set of slides, typically over a few days, and then passing a test that lasts about two hours. Much of the information is basic, with lessons like the importance of daily bathing and how to recognize mold on produce. In four of the largest states, including California, such training is mandated by law; in other cases, companies require the training for managers and some employees.

The California Restaurant Association and the National Restaurant Association declined to comment for this article, but both have vocally opposed the bill, arguing that workers benefited from training. The “food handler” card received upon completion of the training is portable from job to job, and it is valid for three years before having to be renewed.

At a rally with workers outside the State Capitol on Tuesday evening after the Assembly passed the legislation, Saru Jayaraman, the leader of the labor-advocacy group One Fair Wage, said the legislation could have an impact beyond California.

“They are using that money from low-wage workers to fight us all over the country,” she said, referring to the restaurant association. “The biggest part of this bill is that it will stop the flow of cash from two million workers in California to the nation’s largest restaurant lobby.”

Member dues typically make up a large share of funding for industry business leagues. But executives with the National Restaurant Association have noted that dues make up a small portion of the group’s revenue compared with ServSafe and other business initiatives.

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