Connie Hogarth: We all pay for fast-food workers’ low wages

Oct. 17, 2013   |  


Taco Bell employee Shanise Stitt joing a rally in front of a Church’s Chicken restaurant in Detroit on Aug. 29, as similar protests were under way around the nation. / FILE PHOTO/AP

Written by

Connie Hogarth

 A report, “Fast Food, Poverty Wages: The Public Cost of Low-Wage Jobs in the Fast-Food Industry,” was issued Tuesday. The report was sponsored by the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Labor Research and Education and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of Urban & Regional Planning. Funding for the project was provided by Fast Food Forward.
• Find a link to the report at, the website for the Service Employees International Union, or directly at

 The ubiquity of fast-food restaurants in the lives of most Americans — on most street corners of major cities, tucked away along rest stops spanning the country, and embedded in sprawling suburban malls — would suggest that fast-food corporations would strive to uphold American values in their business practices. Yet most Americans would be shocked to discover how little their local McDonald’s or Burger King pays their employees, and of the billions of dollars in taxpayer money the fast-food industry costs the nation by refusing to give their workers a decent, living wage.

New research revealed Tuesday from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, finds that more than half of all fast-food jobs pay such meager amounts that workers and their families have no choice but to receive additional assistance from programs for low-income individuals like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or Medicaid. Full-time jobs in the fast-food industry simply do not pay adequate wages, leaving them twice as likely as other workers to seek public assistance.

So your taxpayer money — nearly $7 billion of it every year — goes toward filling the gap in wages that fast-food corporations neglect to pay their workers so that they can line their own pockets.

Paying so little in wages means that fast-food employees, working tirelessly throughout the day, in many cases on multiple jobs, can barely afford three meals a day. Fast-food employees went on strike earlier this year in 60 cities, calling for higher pay from corporations so that they can live decent lives and, in the process, save taxpayers billions of dollars in public assistance. The report this week from Berkeley underscores the importance of higher wages and giving these fast-food employees the right to unionize. Higher wages for fast-food workers is not only a victory for basic dignity and fairness, but also a terrific boon for the economy and Americans across the country.

$8.77 an hour

The groundbreaking report also dispels some misleading arguments touted by the fast food corporations. Often they’ll argue that that these positions are just temporary jobs filled by teenagers in school who don’t need salaries for families. But the facts leave this claim hollow. Sixty-seven percent of fast-food workers are adults 20 and older; 68 percent are the principal breadwinners in their families; and more than 25 percent are raising children. Yet 90 percent of employees in the industry are front-line workers, with a median wage of $8.77 per hour, and a mere 2 percent of these workers rise to management.

Taxpayers should be enraged that fast-food companies have used our money to fuel their own economic maltreatment. Americans who want to earn enough to get by from their jobs are unable to do so because of the greed of fast-food corporations, which continue to protest higher wages, complaining about fictitious slim profit margins.

The good thing is that we can change this by speaking out loud enough. After all, it’s our money.

If fast-food corporations stepped up and paid their workers higher wages, it is a good bet that taxpayers have a few good ideas about how to spend $7 billion in recovered public assistance. We could revamp our infrastructure, hire more teachers, create good jobs and invest in our people. We could stimulate the economy, giving fast-food workers higher wages to spend on small businesses around the country. Raising the wage is a common-sense move.

On street corners, malls and rest stops across the U.S., 3 million fast-food workers work hard to get by. They have family and friends to take care of. They don’t expect anything lavish, just a living wage to stay on their feet and take care of loved ones.

If fast-food workers can be so responsible with the paltry wages corporations pay them, why can’t fast-food corporations be equally responsible with America’s money?

The writer is director of the Connie Hogarth Center for Social Action at Manhattanville College, and a co-founder and past executive director of the Westchester People’s Action Coalition (WESPAC).