Fast Food, Slow Progress

Can your family survive on fast food worker wages? That’s the question do-gooder icon Mother Jones put to readers recently, and although it’s a cliche, the answer really might surprise you. It might, in fact, horrify you. It sure did me.

Struggles by fast food workers for a living wage have been in the news for some time. Unlike waitstaff in traditional restaurants, they either don’t earn tips or earn negligible amounts ($15 a week was average when I worked for Starbucks twenty years ago).

Minimum wage is survivable provided one has a secure, affordable living situation and guaranteed hours, but guaranteed hours are a rarity in the industry. In the UK, McDonalds has made front page news for its commitment to so-called zero hour contracts which offer the workers anything from no work to overtime, as it suits the employer. Labour MP Andy Sawford responds, “In the ordering of their food they know how to identify customer levels so they cook the right amount, so they could use that same information with staff levels and give employees more certainty.”

This week, fast food workers around the country are set for escalating job action in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, Kansas City and Flint, demanding a wage of $15 an hour and the right to unionize without management interference. The actions are supported and coordinated by the Service Employees International Union. “We are slowly dying,” striker Terrence Wise told Democracy Now.

So what does it actually take to live on a fast food salary, if the right wing media is to be believed and granting the wage increase would cripple the nation’s Happy Meal capability, leading to a dangerous international burger imbalance?

The Mother Jones calculator queries your household size (just me and the cats, but they’re big eaters), your state (Canuckistan, but I picked Washington because, well, I’ve been there and it looks a lot like Vancouver), your city (provided your household is larger than one; singles it seems can fit in anywhere), and how much you make in a year (good question; I estimated $30,000 this year). Then it spits out a rather shocking statistic.

To earn $30,000 a year working as a fast food worker, I’d have to work 64 hours a week. The average number of hours a fast food employee receives is less than 25, and I have seven years at Starbucks that confirm it.

A household like yours in Washington needs to earn $18,245 annually to make a secure yet modest living. A fast-food worker working full time would have to earn $8.74 an hour to make that much.

The average fast-food employee works less than 25 hours a week. To make a living wage in Washington at current median wages, s/he would have to work 39 hours a week.

In 39 hours, McDonald’s serves 112,125,000 customers and makes $122,394,480. That’s about 30,598,620 Big Macs.

As author Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in her book Nickel and Dimed, while companies repeatedly claim their employees like the flexibility of the scheduling, interviews with the actual employees indicate a labor force that would prefer standardized hours, preferably full time. With an increasing proportion of breadwinners vs students in the staffing pool, that demand is a very real call to action and challenge to the industry. ThinkProgress reports that if hourly wages on the front line doubled, the price of a Big Mac would go up a whopping (see what I did there) 68 cents.

While six-figure think tankers continue to wrestle with the problem, the Pew Research Center reveals that women are the primary breadwinners in 40% of US families, and that the average income for a single mother who has never married is $17,400.

She’d better get a second, or a third, job.

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