Fast-food workers protest Trump's labor secretary nominee

LOS ANGELES/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The union-backed “Fight for $15” movement protested at Carl’s Jr and Hardee’s restaurants on Thursday in a bid to stop the chains’ head, a vocal opponent of minimum wage increases and “overregulation,” from becoming U.S. labor secretary.

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Senate leadership has pushed back the confirmation hearing of Andrew Puzder to February from a tentative date of Jan. 17.

Puzder, 66, leads CKE Restaurants Inc. For years, he has said Obama administration policies have saddled industry with higher costs and contributed to a “government-mandated restaurant recession.”

An enthusiastic supporter of President-elect Donald Trump, Puzder has spoken against efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15 and is widely expected to roll back policies such as those aimed at curbing unpaid overtime and improving worker safety.

The four-year-old “Fight for $15” movement has helped win big minimum wage hikes in California and New York. It also seeks to unionize restaurant workers.

The restaurant industry is the biggest U.S. employer of minimum wage workers, and CKE’s restaurants, like many others, have been cited or sued for violating wage and safety rules.

“If Puzder is confirmed as labor secretary, it will mean the Trump years will be about low pay ... instead of making lives better for working Americans like me,” said Terrance Dixon, 32, who makes $9 per hour at a St. Louis Hardee’s.

Puzder was unavailable for comment. He recently resigned from the International Franchise Association’s board. That industry group represents companies like CKE and McDonald’s Corp and has urged its 15,000 members to lobby on Puzder’s behalf.

“These protests distract from the real issues at hand for our nation’s leaders – how to create economic growth at all levels, which is the only real solution to income inequality in America,” said Matt Haller, IFA’s senior vice president of public affairs.

Senate Democrats including Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts held a hearing on Tuesday after Republican rivals rebuffed their request to bring witnesses to Puzder’s upcoming confirmation hearing.

The protestor-packed event included testimony from Laura McDonald, 51, who was a general manager at a CKE-owned Carl’s Jr restaurant in California from 1988 until 2012.

She has joined two potential California class-action wage and hour lawsuits against CKE, which during her tenure switched general managers from salaried to hourly workers. In 2004, CKE paid $9 million to settle California lawsuits claiming unpaid overtime for general managers.

“When CKE made general managers into hourly employees, it set our wages so low that we had to work 47-1/2 hours a week just to earn the same money we’ve been being paid as a salary,” McDonald said.

A transition official accused Democrats of running a smear campaign and lauded Puzder as a successful businessman.

Puzder opponents face stiff odds when it comes to derailing his confirmation by the Republican-controlled Senate. The last six incoming presidents made 109 Cabinet-level appointments and just six picks did not go on to win Senate approval, according to an analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight.

Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles, Sarah Lynch and Robert Iafolla in Washington; Editing by Andrew Hay