Sen. Elizabeth Warren may think working at Hardee’s sounds like a terrible job, but Patsy Elikson happens to love it.
The grandmother from Lake City, Florida, said she was desperate for work in 2015 after she suffered a mild heart attack and was laid off from her restaurant job. She found an opportunity at Hardee’s, part of the CKE Restaurants group headed by Labor Secretary nominee Andy Puzder.
“I needed to go back to work, and nobody wanted to hire me,” said Ms. Elikson, fighting back tears as she spoke this week at a Capitol Hill press conference. “I was 59 years old. I’m overweight. And nobody would hire me. I went into Hardee’s, and Susan interviewed me, and I left with a job my first day there.”
A biscuit cook, she said she plans to stay there until she retires. “Working at Hardee’s, we’re one big happy family. Everybody helps everybody. We work together and we take care of our customers. We take care of each other,” Ms. Elikson said.
Whether Mr. Puzder wins confirmation as labor secretary may hinge on the job satisfaction of fast-food workers like Ms. Elikson.
Democrats and labor unions have targeted his nomination for defeat, labeling him the #AntiLaborSecretary as part of a campaign to upend his nomination.
His Senate confirmation hearing has been delayed indefinitely while he resolves his business conflicts of interest, prompting Yahoo Finance columnist Rick Newman to label him “Trump’s most endangered cabinet nominee.”
Reports issued by Senate Democrats and the union-funded Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) blast working conditions at Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. franchises. The ROC report cited survey data concluding that CKE franchises are plagued by higher-than-average incidents of wage violations, age discrimination and sexual harassment.
“Andrew Puzder will do what’s best for big businesses like his own and those at the top — at the expense of workers and their families,” said Senate Democrats in their anti-Puzder report, “Charbroiled.”
The ferocity of the opposition may have caught Mr. Puzder and his supporters by surprise, but last week they came back swinging against what Rep. Virginia Foxx, North Carolina Republican, called a “malicious effort underway to derail his nomination with personal attacks.”
“The think-tanks and union bosses behind this smear campaign want another community organizer as labor secretary — someone who will push their extreme partisan agenda,” said Ms. Foxx at the forum. “Fortunately, the American people want a new direction in Washington and a new direction at the Department of Labor.”
The pro-business Employment Policies Institute released its own survey, conducted by CorCom, that found 92 percent of employees surveyed said Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s were a “great place to work,” and that 93 percent of female workers said they felt “safe and respected.”
“I think there’s been an attempt to create a false narrative about what it’s like to work at a franchisee-owned Hardee’s or Carl’s,” said Michael Saltsman, institute research director.
Mr. Puzder, 66, has shown no signs of backing down, telling The Associated Press in a Wednesday statement that he remains “fully committed to becoming secretary of labor and I am looking forward to my hearing.”
His business acumen isn’t at issue. As CEO of CKE Restaurants, he has been widely credited with turning around the flagging Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. franchise, which now employ about 75,000.
But his frankness has come back to haunt him. His ruminations last year about restaurant automation, in which he said machines are “always polite” and “never take a vacation,” fueled accusations that he wanted to replace workers with robots, which he has denied.
Mr. Puzder later said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that technology also has its drawbacks, but that government regulation is pushing industries in that direction.
The back-and-forth has put fast-food jobs in the spotlight. At a Jan. 10 forum led by Ms. Warren and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, workers ticked off complaints about their experiences with Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., from not being paid overtime to sexual harassment to being splattered with grease from the burger grill.
Part of the rallying cry has been Mr. Puzder’s opposition to a national minimum wage of $15 per hour.
Lupe Guzman of Las Vegas said she had to go on food stamps because she could not support her six children on her hourly Carl’s Jr. wage of $8.75.
“I am in this fight until we win. I’m going to see it through until we win 15 [dollars an hour] and union rights,” Ms. Guzman said. “When we stick together and speak out together, we are getting heard. We are getting taken seriously.”
Cherie Abarquez of Bakersfield had a different story. At this week’s pro-Puzder forum, she said she had previously struggled with addiction but that the stability and flexibility of her work schedule have helped her regain custody of her children.
Her manager “works with me when it comes to my children,” said Ms. Abarquez. “She’s always been that way. It’s an awesome place to work. I love being there. Like they say, we’re like family.”
One recurring theme among Mr. Puzder’s supporters is the support they’ve received in climbing the management ladder. Aretha William-Wood, who started at Carl’s Jr. in high school and now serves as director of franchise operations in San Diego, called Mr. Puzder an “amazing leader.”
“I know there are a lot of CEOs who say they want to know, and nothing happens,” said Ms. William-Wood. “That is not the case with Andy. He will bring his top management with him, and you can ask anything.”
Aris Bustamante, a 20-year employee who started as a crew worker and rose to become regional director of operations, had nothing but praise for Mr. Puzder.
“I never thought I was going to have a career here with CKE, but thanks to Andy for recognizing the top performers, I am in the position I am,” Mr. Bustamante said.
Dina Dwyer-Owens, head of the Dwyer Group, a service-based franchise firm, pointed out that Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. employees work for franchisees who are small-business owners.
“There’s nothing easy about what we do,” she said. “Here’s a guy who took a brand that was really hurting, turned it around, and is making the difference in thousands and thousands of people’s lives.”
Enrique Delgado, who cleaned tables and delivered food after being hired in 1992, said he rose to CKE vice president of operations thanks in part to Mr. Puzder’s support.
“I never imagined becoming the first Latino VPO for CKE, but you helped provide opportunities for all of the CKE employees,” said Mr. Delgado.
Said Ann Devane, a biscuit cook in Macclenny, Florida: “I’ll work at Hardee’s until I retire. That’s how much I love the job.”