Fast-food restaurants are quick to modernize their mascots and public image (see: Sexy Hamburglar), but when it comes to modernizing low-paying jobs, they’re sadly behind the times. One of the many reasons fast-food restaurants can get away with this is because of how the public perceives the product versus the people making it.
When it comes to the product, the verdict is clear: Americans love fast food. One in four Americans report eating some kind of fast food every day. But when it comes to fast-food employees, that goodwill flips faster than, well, a greasy hamburger. The general public perception is that fast-food workers are uneducated, lazy and unmotivated to improve their standing in life beyond standing behind a burger counter.
This is just not reality for the majority of employees at fast-food restaurants. Keep these fast facts in mind next time you think about ordering fast food.
Myth: Employees at fast-food restaurants are high school kids making a little side cash.
The days of high school kids flipping burgers after school to earn a little extra spending cash are long gone. Today, 40 percent of the workforce in the fast food industry is 25 or older, and the average fast-food worker is 29 years old. 26 percent of fast food workers are parents with children. 31 percent of workers at fast-food restaurants have at least attempted college.
Myth: Employees at fast-food restaurants make enough money to get by.
According to the National Employment Law Project, up to 50 percent of fast-food workers have more than one job; often, that second job is another minimum wage or low-paying job that requires equally long hours. For fast food workers, making ends meet is a nearly 24-hour ordeal.
By and large, executives in the fast-food industry say these economic hardships aren’t their fault. International Franchise Association president Steve Caldeira told The New York Times in 2013, “The minimum wage was never meant to be a living wage. It was meant, from the start, for entry-level workers and for those with lower skills.” That is not true. The minimum wage was designed as a basic worker’s right to ensure that people of all ages and at all levels of employment could make a livable amount of money.
Even when fast-food restaurants try and do something about workers’ wages (besides, you know, actually raising them) it’s meaningless at best and insensitive at worst. For instance, in 2013, McDonald’s created a financial literacy site for employees that almost immediately backfired. The site included a sample budget for workers that assumed they were working 40 hours a week at McDonald’s and had a second job just to make ends meet. Needless to say, this form no longer exists on their website.
Myth: Wages are improving across the board for fast-food workers.
While it’s true that nationwide protests advocating a $15/hour living wage for fast-food employees have gained significant traction, the path to change has been long and winding. Most of the forward progress on the minimum wage issue has been achieved at the state or municipal level. Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage remains stagnant at $7.25; and private fast-food companies haven’t taken much initiative to improve worker pay unless forced to by location.
In April, McDonald’s did announce that it would raise wages for employees at corporate-owned restaurants to one dollar above the minimum wage, and that it would pay those same workers $10/hour by 2016. While this seems like good news at first, it’s misleading. First, $10/hour is still not a living wage and is well below the demands of the protesters—many of whom are non-union fast-food employees themselves—who are asking for $15/hour. Also, this seemingly benevolent pay raise only applies to about 10 percent of the workforce at McDonald’s. 90 percent of McDonald’s restaurants are operated by franchises, not the corporation itself; this means the workers at those locations won’t benefit at all from this new initiative.
Progress towards a living wage for fast-food workers is coming, but we still have a long way to go.
Myth: It’s okay to underpay employees at fast-food restaurants because it builds character.
Yes, these are actual words that came out of an actual human being’s mouth. At the McDonald’s annual shareholder meeting this year, an anonymous investor (gee, I wonder why?) said that if famous former employees like Sharon Stone and Shania Twain “were making $15 an hour, they’d still be working at McDonald’s,” as an argument against paying fast-food employees more. Well, that argument “don’t impress me much,” and I doubt it would fly with Ms. Twain, either.
In reality, it’s tough to argue that fast-food jobs build character because they don’t build a career. The National Employment Law Project found that entry-level jobs at fast-food restaurants are more likely to be dead-end jobs than stepping stones to more advanced work. 89.1 percent of fast food workers are hourly employees at the bottom of the company ladder.
Now that you have a better understanding of the person handing you your order at the drive-through, what can you do about it? For workers in these dire situations, corporate accountability can’t come at the cost of a job; so many fast-food workers have taken that risk already by protesting for higher wages.
It’s up to the consumers with greater privilege to stand in solidarity with those who are fighting to survive—literally—in the fast food industry. Some great resources include Fight for 15 and this magazine; this is an issue we plan to cover for a long time.
Stephanie Levy is a writer, editor, and web producer living in the D.C. area. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she has covered everything from education policy to dumpster-diving for beer (seriously). If you’re a fan of feminism, online sarcasm, and/or the St. Louis Cardinals, check out Stephanie’s website, and follow her on Twitter: @stephanie_levy.