Workers and advocates demonstrate outside of a McDonald’s in Oakland last summer. (Flickr/Steve Rhodes)

Fast-food workers at restaurants in more than 100 cities across the country, including Oakland and other East Bay cities, are walking off the the job today in a push for a major wage hike.

Backed by organized labor, the one-day actions are part of a year-old campaign to highlight the difficulties low-wage workers face in paying for basic living costs.

Following on the heels of similar protests last summer, demonstrators are demanding a wage of $15 an hour, a significant — though unlikely — raise from the current average fast-food industry wage of less than $9 an hour.

Pew Center Center
Pew Research Center

The campaign coincides with an effort by congressional Democrats pushing a bill to incrementally increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from its current level of $7.25. But it has little chance of passing the Republican-controlled House, where many members oppose it as a job-killing measure. Supporters of wage hikes have had greater success on a state and local level, winning recent victories in New Jersey, California, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island, all of which approved minimum wage increases this year.

In a recently released statement, the National Restaurant Association, an industry lobbying group, criticized today’s demonstrations as little more than a political stunt “engineered by national labor groups where the vast majority of participants are activists and paid demonstrators.” The group argues that throughout the recession and slow economic recovery, fast-food restaurants, many of which are locally-owned franchises, have consistently provided employment to hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers. A dramatic increases in wages, it claims, would result in significant job cuts, increased automation, and more expensive meals for consumers.

Where the strikes are happening, according to labor group Fast Food Forward
(zoom in for regional detail)

Steep hidden costs of low wages

But a recent study by the UC Berkeley Labor Center and University of Illinois makes the case that the public cost of these low-wage jobs is deceptively steep.

Courtesy UC Berkeley Labor Center
Courtesy UC Berkeley Labor Center

In an analysis of core, front-line fast-food workers, (defined as non-managerial employees working at least 11 hours per week for 27 or more weeks per year), the report calculated an average nationwide wage of $8.69 an hour, which at full-time employment is far below the cost of living just about anywhere in the country, resulting in high poverty rates among workers’ families  It also found that only 13 percent of these workers receive health care benefits from their employers.

As a result of low wages and lack of benefits, more than half of families of front-line fast-food workers are enrolled in one or more public assistance programs, costing taxpayers nearly $7 billion a year, according to the study. Of that, nearly $4 billion is spent on public health care costs and more than $1 billion goes toward food stamp benefits

“The fast-food industry stands out for both its low wages and its paucity of full-time work jobs,” the study’s authors write. “As a result, annual earnings in the fast-food industry are well below the income needed for self-sufficiency.”

Not just teenagers flipping burgers anymore

Teenagers flipping burgers as a part-time, after-school gig is no longer the industry norm. Lingering unemployment has led to an increasing number of older workers filling fast-food jobs. The average age of fast-food workers is now about 29, according to the American Community Survey, and roughly a quarter of workers are parents and more than a third have second jobs.

The original McBudget (courtesy of Forbes)
The original McBudget (courtesy of Forbes)

McDonald’s recently took heat after labor organizers published screen grabs from McResourceline.com, a corporate website that offered financial tips to cash-strapped workers (see video below). The site, which has since been taken down, counseled employees to conserve costs by doing things like breaking their meals into pieces resulting in “eating less and still feeling full,” taking two vacations a year to reduce heart attack risk, and making additional income by selling “unwanted possessions on eBay or Craigslist.”

In response, McDonald’s argued that the site was a well-intentioned effort to help its workers, and that the suggestions were taken out of context.

The company also provides an online budgeting guide for its workers, created in conjunction with Visa. A initial sample “McBudget” published this summer went viral online because it failed to include basic necessities like food, clothing, childcare and gas. And it earmarked only $20 a month for health-insurance costs.

A video published on the labor organizing site lowpayisnotok.org, featuring screen grabs from the now defunct McResourceline.com.

In One-Day Strike, Fast-Food Workers Demand A Living Wage 19 May,2015Matthew Green

  • Tightwadwithaminwagejob

    “As a result of low wages and lack of benefits, more than half of families of front-line fast-food workers are enrolled in one or more public assistance programs, costing taxpayers nearly $7 billion a year, according to the study.”
    Umm, those workers were ineligible to recieve assistance if they were not employed. Therefore, it is not the result of low wages that they accepted this assistance; they took this low wage position because it qualified them for assistance. It is not a question of semantics, it is a question of motivation.
    The cost of labor is included in the price you are charged for that meal. If we raise the minimum wage, we raise the cost of that labor twice, since the employer pays as much to the government to fund unemployment, disability, retirement,and other worker benefit programs, as it does to the employee. Instead of striking against the employers, perhaps it would be more effective to strike against the legislators.I want to keep my dollar menu, rather than having to select from the new $5 menu which would result from having to maintain a full-time workforce with full-time benefits.



Matthew Green

Matthew Green produces and edits The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog, an online resource for educators and the general public. He previously taught journalism at Fremont High School in East Oakland, and has written for numerous local publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Email: mgreen@kqed.org; Twitter: @KQEDlowdown

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