Point of View

The high cost of fast-food's low wages

October 16, 2013 

I recently met Willietta Dukes, a mother of two and fast-food employee in Durham. Willietta makes $7.85 at Burger King, despite 16 years of experience in the fast-food industry. In August, tired of struggling to get by, she walked off her job, just a month after losing her home because she could no longer afford rent payments. Despite working hard for as many hours as she gets from Burger King, Willietta is forced to rely on food stamps just to make ends meet.

Research released this week by the University of Illinois and UC Berkeley http://laborcenter.berkeley.edu/publiccosts/fast_food_poverty_wages.pdf shows that more than half of fast-food workers nationwide are paid so little that the public needs to provide assistance to make sure workers can afford basic, everyday needs.

In other words, fast-food employees are twice as likely as other workers to be forced to rely on programs like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (otherwise known as food stamps) or Medicaid. These low wages paid by fast-food companies cost Americans close to an astonishing $7 billion annually. In North Carolina alone, 54 percent of fast-food employees are forced to rely on public assistance to survive, costing NC taxpayers $264 million annually.

This is not how our country is supposed to work. Anyone who works hard shouldn’t have to depend on food stamps to get by, and Americans shouldn’t have to pay to help incredibly profitable corporations turn more and more jobs into ones that don’t pay enough to live on.

We hear a lot from the fast-food industry that these low-wage jobs are just steppingstones, that they’re merely part-time employment for teenagers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sixty-seven percent of fast-food workers are adults ages 20 and older, and 68 percent are the main earners in their families. More than a quarter are raising children. Nearly 90 percent of employees in the industry are front-line workers, with an average wage of $8.94 per hour, and only 2 percent of workers are in managerial positions.

The reality is that we’ve created a perverse system in which those that prepare and cook our food are not paid enough to afford three meals a day. Workers like Willietta, who want to stand on their own two feet, provide for their children and make enough money to stay in their homes, are unable to do so.

It hasn’t always been this way. Programs like food stamps used to be a line of last defense, a means to provide the poor and jobless with basic necessities to survive, like food, shelter and healthcare. Now, public assistance is increasingly becoming a necessary component of low-wage employment. Even full-time jobs in the fast-food industry do not pay enough for workers to survive.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If companies like McDonald’s and Burger King paid their workers higher wages, our nation could invest billions of dollars to repair our crumbling roads, fix our failing schools and create good-paying jobs. North Carolina’s economy would grow and our communities would strengthen; workers could afford to buy clothes and health care for their children, and they’d spend that money at small businesses in the Triangle.

Earlier this year, fast-food workers in 60 cities went on strike calling for higher pay so they could survive without having to rely on programs like Medicaid and food stamps. This week’s report underscores the importance of their fight for $15 per hour and the right to form a union. Corporations need to raise wages, not just to improve the lives of fast-food workers, but to restore prosperity for us all.

Every day, the more than 3 million front-line, fast-food workers in this country take responsibility to arrive to shifts on time, work hard and deliver exceptional service to millions of restaurant customers. The fast-food industry ought to take note. It’s time for these companies to take their own responsibility, raise wages and ensure that workers who feed our country can feed their families.

Kevin Rogers, an attorney, is the policy and public affairs director for Action NC.

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