Fast Food Workers Walk Out for Better Pay

PHOTO: Fast food workers and their supporters picket outside a Burger King in Los Angeles on August 29, 2013. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Fast food workers and their supporters picket outside a Burger King in Los Angeles on August 29, 2013.

Nancy Salgado is a single mother of two children in Chicago. She has held down a job for a decade while trying to provide for her kids. The problem? She works at McDonald’s and gets paid minimum wage.

Two weeks ago, Salgado joined thousands of workers from McDonald’s and other fast-food and retail chains in almost 60 cities who walked out of their jobs. They are demanding a $15 per hour wage and the right to unionize. The walkouts were organized by a coalition of labor groups, including the Service Employees International Union, community and religious organizations.

The pre-Labor Day protest was just the latest in a wave of demonstrations by fast-food workers that began last November.

Graph: U.S. Minimum Wage 1963-2013

Salgado, 26, says she struggles to pay the rent and her monthly bills. That’s not to mention other items that her children’s peers own but hers do not, like a bicycle for her young son. That was reason enough to walk off the job and risk retaliation from her employer.

“This is a company that makes [billions of dollars] a year – they can’t stop and think about our wages?” Salgado told Fusion. “We are the ones making that money, they are taking it from us. That’s just not fair.”

Salgado earns $8.25 per hour, the minimum wage in Illinois. That adds up to an annual salary of just over $17,000 for a full time, year round worker. The federal minimum wage is even lower, at $7.25 per hour ($15,000 per year). A one-parent, two-child household in the Chicagoland area must earn $68,000 per year to “attain a secure, yet modest living standard,” according to the liberal Economic Policy Institute.

“I took a risk because I’m the support of my family,” she added. “I provide everything for the kids.”

The restaurant industry has resisted the escalating calls for an across-the-board wage hike for fast-food workers, saying it will cause businesses to cut entry-level positions. Those jobs have traditionally been staffed by young workers, often teenagers, looking for some extra spending money.

But, even as industry representatives acknowledge, adults who are primary caregivers are increasingly taking those jobs once occupied by teens.

“One of the issues that we are having with a lot of these demonstrations is because the economy is doing so poorly in other industries, that you have people taking jobs that they usually wouldn’t look at in the past,” said Angelo Amador, vice president for labor and workforce policy for the National Restaurant Association, a powerful industry group. “And in a way, they are crowding out the younger individuals.”

It’s true. Only 30 percent of fast food workers are teenagers, according to an analysis of government data conducted by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, another left-leaning think tank. And a quarter are raising at least one child.

As Salgado’s story illustrates, it’s become increasingly difficult for low-wage earners to provide for a family. Between 1968 and 2009, the federal minimum wage climbed from $1.60 to $7.25. But adjusted for inflation, the wage fell by 26 percent, from $10.70 to $7.90.

Minimum-wage earners are making less and must provide more, even as the parent companies of their restaurants rake in massive profits. The McDonald’s Corporation made a $5.46 billion net profit last year.

But the restaurant industry argues it’s not as simple as sacrificing a little profit for some extra worker pay; chain restaurants are owned by smaller franchisees who cannot afford to take the hit, according to the National Restaurant Association’s Amador.

And not all fast-food workers agree with Salgado and the demonstrators. Loraine Basulto is a 20-year-old student at Florida International University. She works at a McDonald’s in Miami on weekends and breaks, where she earns $7.89 per hour.

Basulto lives at home with her parents, but uses her earnings to pay for tuition, books, and clothes. The Cuban émigré says that it’s not realistic for fast-food workers to demand a $15 per hour wage.

“There are tons of jobs that pay $15 and hour but McDonald’s isn’t one of those jobs,” she said in an interview. “You have to get an education, you have to have qualifications. When you apply at McDonald’s they don’t require you to have any particular skills. So when the job does not require you to have specific skills, you shouldn't expect the job to pay you $15 an hour. That's how things work."

Salgado disagrees, and says that all she’s asking for is enough pay to provide for her family.

“It’s a skill to have a smile even though I have problems at home. It’s a skill to have a smile and have a customer say you made my day,” she said. “We’re not trying to get rich, we’re trying to live properly.”