6 Ways California's New Minimum Wage for Fast Food Workers Will Hurt Franchises — And Consumers

California’s recent legislation to increase the minimum wage for fast food workers to $20 has stirred significant debate. While the intent behind the law is to improve the livelihoods of employees in one of the state’s largest industries, it has also led to several challenges for franchise owners.

Supporters of the wage hike argue that it addresses long-standing inequities and recognizes the essential role fast food workers played during the pandemic. They claim that higher wages will enhance the living standards for these workers, a significant portion of whom are women and adults over the age of 27, contrary to the common perception of the fast food workforce as predominantly young and inexperienced.

While it sets a new benchmark for labor rights and economic policy, it also introduces several challenges for franchise owners who must adapt to the increased labor costs. Here are some of the key ways this new minimum wage is impacting fast food franchises across California.

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1. Increased operational costs

One of the most immediate impacts of the new minimum wage law is the rise in operational costs for franchises. Fast food restaurants operate on thin profit margins, and the mandated wage increase means that franchise owners must allocate a larger portion of their revenue to payroll. This can be particularly challenging for smaller franchises that do not have the same financial cushion as larger chains.

2. Price increases

To offset the higher labor costs, many franchises have increased menu prices. This, however, can lead to a decrease in customer demand, as higher prices may drive customers to seek cheaper alternatives. The delicate balance between maintaining profitability and keeping prices competitive is becoming increasingly difficult for franchise owners.

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3. Reduction in workforce

In an effort to manage costs, some franchises have had to reduce their workforce. This often means fewer employees working longer hours, which can lead to burnout and reduced service quality. In fact, two major Pizza Hut franchisees in California laid off 1,200 delivery drivers earlier this year in anticipation of the wage hike.

4. Cutbacks on hours and benefits

Another way franchises are coping with increased wages is by cutting back on employee hours and reducing benefits. This strategy helps manage payroll expenses but can have negative consequences for workers who rely on stable hours and benefits such as health insurance. Reduced hours can also lead to higher turnover rates, as employees seek more stable employment elsewhere.

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5. Investment in automation

Faced with higher labor costs, some franchises are turning to automation to reduce their reliance on human workers. Self-service kiosks, automated kitchen equipment, and other technologies can help mitigate wage increases but require significant upfront investment. Moreover, automation can lead to job losses, further exacerbating the employment challenges within the industry.

6. Economic ripple effects

The increase in wages can have broader economic implications, affecting suppliers, landlords, and other businesses that interact with fast food franchises. Higher operating costs for franchises may lead to cost-cutting measures in other areas, such as negotiating lower prices with suppliers or seeking reduced rents. These ripple effects can impact the wider business ecosystem, leading to economic adjustments across various sectors.

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The bottom line

While the new minimum wage law aims to provide better wages for fast food workers, it presents significant challenges for franchise owners. Increased operational costs, price hikes, workforce reductions, investment in automation, and competitive disadvantages are just some of the ways franchises are being affected.

The law’s long-term impact on the fast food industry and the broader California economy remains to be seen, but it is clear that franchise owners must navigate a complex landscape to remain viable.

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