International Business Times • Dean Kuipers

Torrance Chambers has been calling Andy Puzder for weeks to talk to him about a problem with his paycheck from the Hardee’s restaurant where he works in Birmingham, Alabama. Ordinarily, Chambers wouldn’t bother the CEO of the fast-food chain’s parent company, CKE, Inc., but he claims his shift leader, store manager and several higher-ups told him no one else could help. Chambers said his store issues paychecks only in the form of a prepaid Visa debit card — and it comes with fees. He’d prefer to get a paper check or a direct deposit, the way he has at other jobs.

“In order to get the money out the card, you have to go to the ATM, and the one I have to go to, they charge $3.95 for every transaction I have,” said Chambers. He said he’s been charged different fees for using the card in stores and for paying his bills, and there’s no option to get his full paycheck at any particular bank or store without being charged.

“Including food and gas and everything, in a week, total, I’m out $80 [just on transaction fees]. And I’m only getting paid roughly $250 a week,” he said. These fees mean that Chambers’ real wages are significantly less than the national minimum wage required by law, $7.25 an hour.

Having received no return call from Puzder, Chambers filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor on January 25, 2017, alleging minimum-wage violations related to the cards, as well as other problems at the store.

CKE did not respond to queries related to this article.

It’s not the first such complaint against the company, as a 2014  Department of Labor investigation found that the company’s use of debit cards violated minimum wage laws. The agency ordered CKE to pay $2,071.98 to an undisclosed number of employees, again at a Hardee’s in Alabama, for similarly issuing cards that incurred fees. Investigation documents state outright that the company refused to pay the money, stating it would mean “changing the payroll practices of the company,” but it is unclear how the case was resolved or if any changes to the payroll cards were ever made.

CKE is one of many employers now paying with plastic. Prepaid debit cards are a common way to pay employees at American mega-employers like Walmart and Home Depot, as well as many other burger chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Sonic Drive-In. Almost half of U.S. states pay their government employees with cards. The cards are usually offered as an option for those employees who don’t have bank accounts and want to avoid high fees at check-cashing locations.

According to a 2016 report by Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, an advocacy group for restaurant employees, 7.4 million American workers received their payroll via debit card in 2015, and that number is expected to rise to 12.2 million by 2019. The cards are popular with some employees and very popular with payroll companies, who see huge savings by going paperless. The ROC United report found, for instance, that Darden Restaurants, the parent chain of Olive Garden, Yard House and LongHorn Steak House restaurants, saved $2.75 per check per pay period by going to plastic, saving the company $5 million a year.

In New York City, Deyanira Del Río, co-director of the New Economy Project, which helped implement new state rules regarding payroll card use, said that in surveying New York state workers, NEP, Retail Action Project and NYPIRG found two egregious problems that she compared directly to what Chambers said he experienced with Hardee’s in Alabama: Some workers could not access their full pay without paying some kind of fee; and workers said they were coerced or pressured by management into taking the card even if there were other options like direct deposit or a paper check. Chambers said he was unaware if any other option existed, because multiple managers informed him he could not have a paper check or direct deposit.

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