The beef with low wages

(Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
(Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

Fast-food workers are fighting back against low wages this week, holding protests in seven cities and walking off the job to demand higher pay and the right to unionize.

The protests come amid a growing discussion about low wages in the United States, with a group of economists releasing a petition that encourages an increase in the minimum wage to $10.50, another report from the National Employment Law Project that questions the fast-food industry's focus on career opportunities for its low-wage workers and, now, President Obama's jobs remarks Tuesday at an Amazon fulfillment center. The online retailer is hiring 5,000 new warehouse fulfillment center workers into jobs that reportedly pay between $11 and $12 an hour, sparking debate over what now defines a middle-class job.

The strikes also come on the heels of an online furor in recent weeks over a sample budget McDonald's put together several years ago to help employees with their finances. Widely mocked by everyone from blogger Matthew Yglesias to Stephen Colbert, the budget initially left out basics like heating costs and appeared to presume that workers would make ends meet with a second job. The spending journal may have been a well-intentioned and realistic look at the finances of a low-wage worker, but it also brought even more attention to the plight of such workers in the industry.

I'm not an economist, so this will not be a discussion about what constitutes a fair minimum wage, whether it would be better to raise or cut the minimum wage, or how likely it is that fast-food employees will ever get what they're asking for: a more than doubling of the lowest hourly rate a company can pay its workers to $15 an hour.

But how should the leaders of fast-food companies respond to the growing debate? If I were CEO of one of these companies, my worry would be comments like this one from a 25-year-old fast-food worker in a recent story in the Post: “I’m not really concerned about losing my job. If I don’t do anything, I am in a lose-lose situation. I can still get fired at any time.” It's an organizational problem when wages are so low that employees are barely worried about keeping their jobs.

The economists may have numbers about poverty lines and minimum wages, hourly rates and what constitutes a living wage. The harder number to find is the one that leaves workers feeling respected, motivated and valued enough to want to do a good job.

Update: An earlier version made reference to a study by a University of Kansas student, the findings of which were first published on the Huffington Post. The reference has been removed due to errors with the research.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor | July 29, 2013