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California lawmakers push minimum wage exemptions as pay-to-play accusations fly

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(The Center Square) – California lawmakers are pushing for new exemptions to the state’s fast food minimum wage as controversy erupted over the state’s alleged exemption for Panera Bread.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom approved an exemption to the state’s $20 per hour minimum wage for fast-food employees to national fast-food chains with bakeries that sell bread as a standalone item, a narrow category that includes Panera. According to Bloomberg, billionaire Greg Flynn, who opposed the state-mandated fast-food wage increase, leaned into his connections with Newsom to secure the exemption for his two dozen Panera locations in California.

Alex Stack, a spokesperson in the governor’s office, told The Center Square, called the accusation “absurd,” and that Newsom never met with Flynn regarding the legislation.

“Our legal team has reviewed and it appears Panera is not exempt from the law,” Stack said.

Yesterday, the state legislature moved forward with a bill carving out new exemptions to the fast food minimum wage — authored by the same state assemblymember who wrote the fast food minimum wage law and whose staff told Bloomberg “We don’t know how that came about” when asked about the alleged Panera exemption.

In January, Assemblymember Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, picked up an inactive bill on transportation passes and rewrote it to create a new class of exemptions from his fast food minimum wage. Now, the Service Employees International Union — Holden’s largest donor on record, and supporter of the fast food minimum wage — is endorsing Holden’s new, broad exemptions to the state minimum wage that were voted upon on Thursday.

If AB 610 passes, fast food restaurants at “airports, hotels, large event centers, theme parks, museums, gambling establishments, corporate campuses, and certain public lands” would be exempt from the fast food minimum wage.

SEIU, the largest union in the state, and Unite Here!, which represents members in the hospitality industry employed in hotels, restaurants, airports, sports arenas, and convention centers, appear to be unlikely bedfellows for a bill creating more exemptions to the minimum wage, but nonetheless issued a letter of support.

“These facilities include worksites where, across many parts of California, workers are often not directly employed by a fast food franchisor, franchisee, or restaurant operator, and compensation already exceeds that which might be provided for under AB 1228 (in some cases, by more than $10 and even $20 per hour),” wrote the unions.

Not a single Republican voted for AB 610, with Senate Minority Leader Brian Jones, R-San Diego, motioning to move the bill to the inactive file.

“We need to send a message that this senate, that this house, that these members, that this bipartisan group of legislators that are trying to make California better, will not condone pay-to-play actions,” said Jones in a statement.

According to State Assembly rules, the bill can be considered by the assembly as soon as March 2.

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