Fast-food workers plan a new wave of walkouts across the nation

Fast-food workers are poised to walk off the job in 100 cities Thursday, the latest action in a nationwide push for a $15-an-hour wage.

Organizers said Thursday’s one-day job action will be backed by protests in 100 other cities by social justice groups that support the fast-food workers’ demands.

“There is a huge amount of support and enthusiasm for this,” said Ezra Tempko of the Delaware chapter of the Americans for Democratic Action, which is supporting workers who plan to walk out in Wilmington, Del. “The only push back is that folks were worried about what repercussions there might be for workers.”

The protests began in November 2012, when about 200 fast-food workers walked away from their jobs at 30 restaurants in New York City. Since then, the walkouts have expanded across the country and joined with a broader movement to increase pay for low-wage employees of retail chains and federal contractors, among others.

“The workers realized that the only way they could gain something was by taking dramatic action,” said Kendall Fells, organizing director for Fast Food Forward, which helped organize the initial New York walkout.

As states and grass-roots organizations lead local efforts to raise the minimum wage, Christine Owens of the National Employment Law Project examines the demographics of low-wage workers in the United States. (The Washington Post)

Organizers say few workers have been punished for the walkouts and that some have even been rewarded with slightly higher pay and more regular shifts. Also, several states and localities have raised their minimum wages. (On Tuesday, the D.C. Council endorsed a $3.25 hike in the District’s minimum wage, to $11.50 an hour. The measure needs final approval from the council and the D.C. mayor.)

President Obama has endorsed raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10 an hour after previously calling for an increase to $9.

Still, the wage proposal has not progressed in Congress, despite strong support in public opinion polls, and widespread wage increases have proved elusive. Representatives of fast-food restaurant owners say that they cannot afford to pay rank-and-file workers — who earn a median wage of just under $9 an hour, according to one study — substantially more because of fierce price competition, which typically leaves franchisees operating on thin profit margins.

The walkouts, which are backed by organized labor including the Service Employees International Union, have attracted widespread attention while spotlighting the nation’s widening economic inequality and the rapid growth in low-wage jobs.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that seven of the 10 fastest-growing occupations over the next decade will be in jobs that traditionally have paid low wages, such as home health aides, store clerks, food preparation workers and laborers.

A study funded by Fast Food Forward and released this fall by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Illinois found that taxpayers are spending nearly $7 billion a year to supplement the wages of fast-food workers through programs including food stamps, Medicaid and the earned-income tax credit.

“What we’re getting paid is not enough,” said Benjamin Hunter, 43, a married father of one who works at a Burger King in Wilmington.

He said he earns $7.25 an hour and that his wife makes $9 an hour working as a Burger King shift manager. The family receives Medicaid and food stamps. “Who can actually live on what they are paying?” he asked.

Michael A. Fletcher is a national economics correspondent, writing about unemployment, state and municipal debt, the evolving job market and the auto industry.
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