First, most fast food workers are paid poverty-level wages. 13 percent of the fast food workforce is paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 or less. 70 percent of fast food workers earn between $7.26 and $10.09 per hour. Fewer than 17 percent of the workers earn $10.10 per hour or more. Many workers attempt to support families on these poverty wages: 27 percent of all fast food workers have at least one child.
Second, most fast food workers are older and better educated than industry representatives would have us believe. 53 percent of fast food workers are adults 21 and older, and most have a high school diploma or more. 36 percent of fast food workers are aged 25-54 years, while only 30 percent are teenagers aged 16-19. Of the 70 percent of fast food workers who are not teenagers, almost 85 percent have graduated from high school, and over one third have spent time in college. These are not entry-level jobs for teenagers who failed to graduate from high school and who therefore somehow “deserve” the poverty wages they receive.
Fourth, the fast food industry has seen an epidemic of “wage theft.” Often forced to submit to criminal background checks prior to employment, fast food workers are overwhelmingly the victims, not the perpetrators, of crime at work: 84 percent of New York City workers have experienced wage theft, including failure to pay overtime or receive required rest breaks, improper deductions from paychecks, out-of-pocket deductions for register stoppages, and late or bounced paychecks. Two thirds of delivery workers had experienced four or more forms of wage theft. Unionization would protect against wage theft.
Fast food workers are striking for higher wages and protection from employer retaliation because they have few other options and little to lose. In July, McDonald’s published a budget for employees that inadvertently admitted that it was impossible to survive on the poverty-level wages that it pays its front-line employees.
A broad alliance of labor, community and faith groups already support the fast food workers. But all American workers should support their courageous struggles. Too many fast food workers are forced to depend on public assistance, and increasing their wages would reduce the public subsidy of large corporations, lower poverty levels, and boost the economy, which depends heavily on consumer spending.
Fast food workers need a living wage and a union.
Logan is professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.