Spoiler: It’s Not Higher Wages That’s Making The CEO of Carl’s Jr. Threaten Automation

carls' jr automation

I’m going to come right out and say something plainly: Andy Puzder, the CEO of CKE Restaurants, Inc (the parent company for Carl’s Jr.) is not a good dude.

He’s an elite-level sexist—”I like our ads. I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it’s very American”—who, despite himself earning over $17,000 per day, has railed against paying overtime to salaried fast food managers because “what they lose in overtime pay they gain in the stature and sense of accomplishment.” He’s claimed that the existence of social services actually make people more poor, completely neglecting to note that the poverty wages he pays is actually the reason the working poor are reliant on social services, and seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of how poverty actually works.

So imagine my surprise when this Not Good Dude with a history of getting it wrong on basically everything having to do with labor and wages for the lowest earners makes a comment about automation and everyone—even sensible people!—point to it and say “See? See? We knew it!”

In a Business Insider piece last week, Puzder said he’d like to try a fully automated restaurant because it would be cheaper. But it’s clear from him other quotes that it’s not just wages and the cost of health care that are making him look at robots—the man clearly just doesn’t like the idea of human beings, and his disdain for the very people who make him his multi-millions each year is evident in quotes like this one:

[The machines are] always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.

Plus, he clearly thinks kiosks are simply more appealing to young people (he explains that “Millennials like not seeing people”) which means it’s less about the cost of the work and more about his own interest in trying something different and without humans. But that’s not stopping him from tying it back to the cost of labor to further is own long-standing anti-minimum wage agenda.

The threat of automation is hardly new; since the days of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, conservatives have been threatening to fire all of their employees and replace them with robots if they’re forced to pay them fair wages. Most recently, though, you may have seen these threats in the form of a ridiculous meme about how McDonald’s has replaced its workers with kiosks all because of the call for higher wages. Sure, it’s been swiftly disproven—the kiosks are more expensive than the labor, anyway, and can’t yet handle manning the drive-thru, which is responsible for 70% of McD’s sales—but that isn’t stopping minimum wage opponents from making scary claw-hands, baring their teeth, and telling spooky stories about job loss.

But of course, these scary tales (let’s be honest—these threats) are usually told by people who are not in any danger of losing anything. Dunkin Donuts CEO Nigel Travis, who famously doubled his income to $10M per year (because stock options, duh), has slammed New York’s proposed $15 minimum wage, achieving peak levels of lack of self-awareness and empathy.

Though the federal minimum wage hasn’t been increased since 2009, pay for guys like Travis and Puzder sure has. Between 2009 and 2014, the ration of CEO-to-employee pay in the United States grew from 196:1 to 303:1.

Meanwhile, workers’ wages have remained stagnate. So it’s hard to see how it’s the wages, rather than, oh, I don’t know, greed maybe? That’s to blame.

It could also be that Puzder and his crew at Carl’s Jr. made some bad bets. As most fast food restaurants were doubling down on cheaper deals—because they know that poor people need to eat, too!—Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s were trying to make burgers bigger. In a 2009 interview with AdAge, Puzder boasted about bucking trends:

When everybody goes one way, we go the other. Two or three years ago, investors were saying you’ve got to sell salads and applesauce. We said, “To hell with that, we’re going to sell the Monster Thickburger,” and our sales went very, very well. This year everybody is doing 99-cent double cheeseburgers, and quite honestly, go to the grocery store and buy the meat and the buns and the condiments and you don’t pay rent, utilities, labor. You can’t make a decent burger for 99 cents. People are looking to sell this garbage and trying to out-garbage each other.

Now, just a few years later—while his pay has increased and the pay of his workers, largely, has not—Carl’s Jr. made industry headlines when it rolled out an ultra-cheap deal that includes not one but two sandwiches for $4. Carl’s Jr.’s chief marketing officer, Brad Hadley, called the current climate “a price war.”

Gosh, who could have predicted that when workers have less money, they want to spend less money to eat? That sure surprises me.

It’s easy (and convenient for minimum wage opponents) to paint automation as the direct result of higher labor costs—assuming you’re viewing those two elements in a total vacuum. But in drawing a straight line from “high wages” to “all jobs replaced by robots,” you’re leaving out the numerous other elements like skyrocketing CEO pay, tightened purse strings among consumers, not to mention changing consumer tastes and innovations in technology. —

And while it’s true that automation is definitely on the horizon—we’ve been automating jobs for centuries and it’s actually been ok because they’re usually just replaced with different jobs. Instead of doing the thing a robot does, employers have to hire the guy who services the robot, or who does all of the jobs a robot can’t do (seriously, a lot of basic tasks for people are vexing for robots). Plus, employers need humans to be employed somewhere because of course, robots don’t eat burgers.

If Carl’s Jr. really wants to improve their bottom line, you’d think Puzder would invest more in his workers to ensure there’s always a steady stream of demand for his products. But, of course, that’s assuming he’s actually a good dude who likes people and wants them to do well which, as we’ve established, he is not.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a reporter in Seattle. Her writing about the economy and politics has appeared in the Atlantic, the Nation, Salon, Fast Company, and elsewhere.