Using taxpayer money, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration has sent television stations statewide a mock news story extolling a proposal that would benefit political boosters in the business community by ending mandatory lunch breaks for many hourly workers.
The tape looks like a news report and is narrated by a former television reporter who now works for the state. But unlike an actual news report, it does not provide views critical of the proposed changes. Democrats have denounced it as propaganda. Snippets aired on as many as 18 stations earlier this month, the administration said.
The tape opens with text suggesting introductory comments to be read by a news anchor: “If approved, the changes would clear up uncertainty in the business community and create a better working environment throughout the state.”
The video shows construction workers, waitresses, nurses, farmworkers and a forklift operator at their jobs, and includes interviews with a farmer and a restaurant manager. The narrator says the proposal would permit workers to “eat when they are hungry, and not when the government tells them.”
The tape makes no mention that organized labor opposes the changes, or that workers would have a harder time suing employers over missed meal breaks.
The video “is clearly propaganda,” said Assembly Labor Committee Chairman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood). The tape is “completely one-sided.”
He and others cited a law barring the Department of General Services -- which made the tape at the behest of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency -- from engaging in propaganda. “Radio and other communications facilities owned or operated by the state and subject to the jurisdiction of the Department of General Services shall not be used for political, sectarian, or propaganda purposes,” the law says.
The administration released the video earlier this month, as it opened hearings on whether California should modify a meal break rule imposed during the administration of former Gov. Gray Davis. That rule gives workers the right to an extra hour of pay if employers don’t give them half-hour breaks within the first five hours of a shift.
Jose Millan, deputy secretary of the Labor and Workforce Development Agency, is presiding over the hearings and appears in the video speaking favorably about the proposal -- prompting Koretz to charge that the hearings amount to a “kangaroo court.”
“I don’t see it as propaganda,” Millan said, adding that he is remaining fair and open-minded. “All I did was explain our intent and whether it is true we’re trying to take away the right of the employee to have a meal period.... We’re trying to allow the worker to eat or rest when they’re hungry or tired.”
Rob Stutzman, Schwarzenegger’s communications director, defended the so-called video news release, saying it is “just like any other press release, only it’s on video.”
He noted that lawmakers who are criticizing the tape “also issue press releases.”
Legislators commonly use state equipment to give taped interviews to staffers whose job is to help them publicize their views. There is no prohibition against that.
And Democratic lawmakers said politicians are expected to have opinions, while an agency contemplating a new regulation should strive to remain impartial.
Administration documents say the video cost $1,262. Rick Rice, undersecretary of the Labor and Workforce Development Agency, said the money was well spent; parts of the video reached 1.6 million Californians.
A service hired by the state to monitor broadcasts of the video provided estimates of each airing’s “publicity value.”
The service said KTLA-TV Channel 5’s mention of the issue on its 6 a.m. news show reached as many as 106,984 people and was worth $4,843 in publicity, though the station used its own footage. KTLA-TV, like the Los Angeles Times, is owned by Tribune Co. A mention on KNBC-TV Channel 4’s 7 a.m. news show reached 226,943 people, worth $10,273.
Rice said the video was intended to counter opposition led by labor. Insisting the video is not propaganda, Rice added: “What they are complaining about is that the message is not being filtered by them, but is going directly into the living rooms of their constituents.”
Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana) said the cost of the video is beside the point: “Whether they spent $1 or $100,000 on propaganda, they may have crossed the legal line.”
Dunn vowed to investigate the matter in upcoming budget hearings.
On the tape, Millan says the new rule would ensure that employees have “the flexibility to determine whether or not they want to eat earlier or later, or skip lunch altogether in order to run personal errands and get off work earlier.”
Millan also explains the rule change in Spanish. A Spanish-language television station in the Bay Area aired some of his comments.
In an interview, Millan said he was surprised at being attacked for appearing in the video. He said he was merely “responding to questions” posed by the state employee who was interviewing him for the tape. Millan, a former labor commissioner, helped lead the effort to shut down sweatshops in the 1990s.
Millan said that once the hearings conclude in March, he and other administration officials will review testimony and issue a formal proposal to alter the Davis-era measure.
He said the meal break change is part of an attempt to overhaul archaic rules “written for a workplace that no longer exists.” The Office of Administrative Law is responsible for writing the final rule, which would not require legislative approval.
The administration proposes to limit litigation by reducing to one year the period for which businesses can be sued for failing to grant meal breaks. As it is, employees and their lawyers can file claims for unpaid wages going back four years.
Also, the responsibility for ensuring that workers take breaks would shift from employers to employees. The administration says the change would give workers flexibility.
On the tape, the narrator says the Davis administration’s rule “resulted in much confusion, penalties and even litigation.”
“Consequently employees are often forced to take lunch breaks when they don’t want them,” the narrator says.
At another point, the narrator says that “workers with special conditions such as medical conditions, child-care issues or caring for elderly parents would have flexibility with their work schedules.”
Lawyers have filed numerous suits on workers’ behalf, claiming that employers have flouted the lunch break rule. Defendants range from Wal-Mart and Home Depot to several restaurant chains. Some businesses have settled cases by paying multimillion-dollar settlements.
Mimi’s Cafe, a restaurant chain, is a defendant in one such suit. San Diego attorney Michael D. Singer, who represents the workers, said the chain could be liable for damages of as much as $10 million to several thousand past and present employees.
The Schwarzenegger administration video includes comments from a Mimi’s executive extolling the proposal. The tape makes no mention that the chain is embroiled in litigation over the lunch break rule.
Singer called the video “partisan propaganda by the administration, which is supporting its friends and contributors in the business community.”
Stephen Kepler, a lawyer representing Mimi’s, said he was unaware that an executive appeared in the video. He said the chain is “not against employees taking breaks but are in favor of employees having the choice of when to take them.”
Mimi’s is a member of the California Restaurant Assn., which donated $21,000 to one of Schwarzenegger’s campaign funds last year and provided food for his 2003 inauguration. The restaurant association, the California Chamber of Commerce and other major business groups are backing the Schwarzenegger proposal.
Tammy Myers, spokeswoman for Bob Evans Farms Inc., the Ohio-based parent of the Mimi’s chain, said the California Restaurant Assn. “referred the governor’s office to Mimi’s ... so that is how we came to be in that [release].”
The Republican governor appears to be taking a cue from President Bush’s administration, which produced videos that looked like news reports touting new Medicare regulations -- and incurred criticism for doing so last year from congressional Democrats.