Fast food workers need a raise and a voice

Fast food workers engaged yesterday in one-day walkouts in one hundred cities, and almost a hundred other cities saw protests against poverty-level wages. A broad alliance of community, civil rights, religious and student organizations supported the actions.

One-day walkouts by fast food workers started in New York City in November 2012 – the industry’s first ever strikes -- and have spread like wildfire since then. By August the strikes had extended to sixty cities around the country, including the South and West Coast, and today’s actions will encompass such unlikely locations as Charleston, South Carolina. The protests have grown quickly because the message that poverty-level wages and poor working conditions are indefensible has resonated so strongly with the industry’s workers. Faced with rock-bottom wages and benefits, and little opportunity for career advancement, fast food workers have few other options when it comes to improving their situation.

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The protests have highlighted the urgent need for higher wages, better benefits and more full-time jobs. Fast food jobs fail to offer workers a route out of poverty. Workers earn a median wage of $8.69 per hour. 83 percent earn less than $10.10 per hour, and opportunities for advancement are extremely limited. Low paid front-line occupations comprise over 89 percent of all jobs in the industry, while franchise owners make up just 1 percent of all positions. A majority of fast food workers, who are significantly older and better educated than industry representatives make out, are denied full-time work. But the industry’s wages are so low that even those front-line employees who work 40 hours per week are often forced to rely on public assistance, and only 13 percent have access to employer-sponsored healthcare programs.

Most fast food workers have experienced “wage theft” -- such as 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 – including 84 percent of workers in New York City. But it does need to be this way. In addition to benefitting workers, the fast food industry itself would likely benefit from higher wages, as this would reduce extremely high rates of employee turnover and result in productivity and efficiency gains.

But it is not only fast food workers that suffer from the industry’s business model. Every year, taxpayers subsidize fast-food corporations to the tune of almost $7 billion per year, and fast food workers are more than twice as likely to receive public assistance than are other workers. Fast food workers and their dependents are among the nation’s biggest users of Medicaid, Children's Health Insurance Program, Earned Income Tax Credit, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. McDonald’s – the nation’s largest fast food employer of workers who depend on public assistance -- has an advice line that encourages its underpaid employees to seek food stamps and Medicaid. When McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, Burger King, and Taco Bell – all highly-profitably operations -- refuse to pay their front-line employees a living wage, it’s not just fast food workers who pay the price. U.S. taxpayers end up picking up the tab.

How has the GOP reacted to the morally indefensible issue of poverty-level wages? Instead of standing up for better wages and working conditions, it has attacked the groups supporting the rights of low-wage workers. Instead of standing up against the enormous public subsidy of billion dollar corporations, it has stood against tax payers and with employers that advise workers to seek Medicare and food stamps. It is little wonder, then, that the fast food industry costs the public $3.5 billion per year in Medicare and food stamps subsidies alone. The only policy solutions offered by the GOP would mean more misery for fast food workers and greater financial hardship for middle-class Americans

Don’t be misled by the disingenuous arguments of hugely profitable corporations that pay poverty wages and rely on enormous public subsidies. The message of the strikes and protests is indisputable: fast food workers need a raise and a voice.

Logan is professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.