The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) contends that the popular image of fast-food workers (and of low-wage workers generally) is inaccurate. They say that if one looks not just at people making the minimum wage but workers between $7.25 on up to $10 an hour—the group that would benefit most from a minimum wage increase—a different picture emerges: The roughly 21 million workers in this group include plenty of adults working full-time whose wages contribute half their family's household income.
David Cooper, economic analyst at EPI, tells ABC News, "The perception is that low-wage workers are mostly teens working part-time after school, living with their parents and just needing some spending money to buy video games. That's really not the case. Eight-eight percent are age 20 or older. Their average age is 35; their median age is 31. Over a quarter have children of their own, and more than half work full time—35 hours a week or more. The perception is they're secondary earners, as if their income isn't that important. In fact, on average, they earn half of their family's total income."
Fast-food workers make up less than one-quarter of total low-wage workers. Asked how fast-food workers might differ from the picture being painted by EPI, Cooper tells ABC News he doesn't know: EPI's study divided low-wage workers into segments (retail, 24 percent; leisure/hospitality, including fast food, 23 percent; education or health services, 19 percent; and other, 34 percent). They didn't do separate demographics for each group.
Asked how many fast food workers are unionized, he says: "It's probably very small. The share of the private sector that's unionized is only 7 percent, total." Fast-food, he says, is a high turnover industry. "It's hard to organize because of that."
Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown and author of "Where Are All The Good Jobs Going?" confirms the jobs have high turnover. Because the jobs require so little skill, he says, fast food workers are easy to replace. "If you're McDonald's," he says, "every restaurant has a stack of applications."
Holzer questions how much EPI's overall description of low-wage workers applies to people working in fast food. They are indeed more likely to be teenagers or young people working part-time, he says. The cleaning person at a motel, the worker in child care or elder care—those jobs, he says, all demand more skill than does that of somebody working at the typical fast-food job.
He views raising the minimum wage a risk to low-skill workers. "They're easy to replace—that's the problem." In 2007, he says, he was a big supporter of raising the minimum wage. "But since then inflation has been low. There's been little erosion of that increase." Given how bad the job market is, he says, he'd rather not risk adding "one more possible negative" (raising the minimum wage) that might result in more job losses.