Midtown Raleigh News

Local fast-food workers rally for better pay, conditions

At $7.95 an hour, Lucia Gareia Legua brings in about $200 a week from her job at a Raleigh McDonald’s restaurant – an amount that barely covers rent, leaving her to rely on food stamps to feed her three kids.

She’s ready to push for better pay and working conditions, and on Thursday she’ll join other fast food workers from around the Triangle and around the nation to strike for a living wage.

“I want a better future for my kids,” the 37-year-old mom said through a translator.

Organized largely through social media, the walkout takes place Thursday from fast-food restaurants nationwide. The movement is calling for $15-per-hour wages and the right to form a union. Locally, workers from about 30 eateries in the Triangle will leave work to protest, culminating in an afternoon march at Raleigh’s Martin Street Baptist Church – the same spot that launched some of the Moral Monday rallies earlier this year.

“The pay is inadequate, and the conditions are inadequate,” said Pat McCoy, director of Action NC, one of the community groups that’s organizing the Triangle event. “A living wage is the goal here. ... This is an industry where people are considered to be particularly vulnerable.”

Some local fast-food workers said their part-time hours and low pay makes them reliant on government assistance. Regina Mays, a 34-year-old single mom, can’t afford to rent with the minimum wage she earns at a Durham Little Caesars Pizza.

“My family and I are homeless due to poor pay right now,” Mays said.

Mays says she never intended to get stuck with a 20-hour-a-week food service job. An Army veteran, she was laid off from a job at GlaxoSmithKline that paid twice as much. She said she’s searching for another part-time job but can’t find one.

At Little Caesars, she said she once wasn’t given a shift for four weeks due to a “misunderstanding” with managers. That’s when she lost her home. And while the pizza joint’s part-time workers aren’t supposed to exceed their hours, she said they sometimes clock out and stick around to help the next shift.

“To me, that’s considered like stealing money from the employees, because you’re asking for free labor,” Mays said.

Gareia Legua also has a list of workplace changes she’d like to see at McDonald’s. She’s upset that workers have to take meal breaks in a tiny back room – they’re forbidden from eating in the main dining room, she said. And after injuring her arm on the job, Gareia Legua says she immediately returned and cooked hamburgers with one hand.

“I haven’t even taken a vacation day yet because I’m worried about not making money,” she said. “I want everything to change.”

McCoy said other fast-food workers have similar complaints, and they have few options outside of the industry. “Many of these people are older workers who have been at these jobs for a number of years,” he said.

Representatives from three Raleigh fast-food franchises did not return calls seeking comment on the protests. Nationally, opponents of a higher minimum wage have said the change could hurt job creation.

But Allan Freyer, an economic policy analyst at the left-leaning N.C. Budget and Tax Center, doesn’t buy that theory. “The evidence from academic economists is pretty clear: Raising the wage for fast-food workers is good for the economy,” he said, noting that the change improves productivity, reduces turnover and results in workers buying more goods from their employers. “These positive effects spill over to the broader economy.”

It’s rare for fast-food workers to go on strike, especially in non-union states like North Carolina. Employees such as Mays and Gareia Legua say they’re concerned how their employers will react, but they’re eager to take action.

“In history, the ones that create the change feel the backdraft of the change,” Mays said. “I am very excited for the things that this organization is trying to create.”