It turns out a lot of the workers who make Happy Meals aren’t actually all that happy about it.
It was a sentiment made abundantly clear in late August during a wave of one-day walkouts, in which thousands of fast-food workers around the country took to the streets to demand higher wages and the opportunity to join a union. Spurred by protests in New York that began last November, and supported by the Service Employees International Union, the demonstrations took place in front of about 1,000 restaurants — from McDonald’s and Burger King to Kentucky Fried Chicken and Subway — in 60 cities throughout the country.
In 2012, the median hourly wage for a fast-food worker was a little under $9, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But among the millions of fast-food workers in America, many earn at or near the federal minimum wage; just $7.25 an hour. Assuming a 40-hour week, that translates to about $15,000 a year, far below the cost of living pretty much anywhere in the United States, and well under half the median salary of all U.S. workers. Add to that the cost of health care and other benefits that most fast-food workers don’t receive or have to pay mostly pay out of pocket, and you’re looking at a pretty financially strapped work force.
The federal minimum wage, last raised in 2009, hasn’t kept pace with the rate of inflation. It’s a disparity that’s prompted the Obama administration to push for an increase to $9 an hour, a proposal opposed by most conservatives in Congress and unlikely to be approved in the near future. (In a handful of states the minimum wage is slightly higher, including California where it’s $8 an hour. Washington State has the highest minimum wage in the country, at $9.19 an hour.)
“People can’t survive on the minimum wage,” Taco Bell employee Roberto Tejada told the New York Times. At the Los Angeles Taco Bell where he works, Tejada makes $8 an hour “Nobody who works full time should live in poverty,” he said.
Following a recent trend in which more employees in blue- and white-collar jobs are demanding better working conditions, the fast-food protests are unique in that they are targeting the entire industry rather than individual companies.
But many fast-food restaurant executives and franchise owners argue that the business model they operate under doesn’t allow for them to significantly raise wages without passing the costs directly onto American consumers and their insatiable demand for cheap food.
Because of how inexpensive most fast food is, the industry operates under very low profit margins. It means that companies might make a profit of mere pennies from each burger or bucket of chicken sold, and must therefore produce and sell in huge volumes at the lowest possible cost — including the cost of labor — in order to generate large cumulative profits.
Essentially, what it comes down to is that higher wages for workers would mean either the fast-food companies or the consumers would have to foot the bill, a notion that neither seems seems particularly willing to do.
“There’s no room in the fast-food business model for substantially higher pay levels without raising the prices for food,” Richard Adams, who runs a fast-food consulting firm, told the Associated Press.
The industry also commonly notes that it provides millions of jobs — albeit low-paid ones — to unskilled workers who might otherwise be unemployed.
Traditionally, the fast-food industry employed a mostly young work force, including a large number of teenagers working part time while in school. Today, however, a growing number of workers in the industry are significantly older, and many depend on wages to feed their families. According to an analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think-tank that created a profile of the nation’s fast-food workforce based on recent census data, almost 40 percent of fast-food workers are 25 or older; more than 30 percent have at least some college experience; and more than a quarter have children.
As a result a growing percentage of fast-food workers rely on food stamps and other forms of public assistance to get by.
The infographic below, produced by Lisa Mahapatra of the International Business Times illustrates the data presented in the CEPR study.