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Fast food workers are staying longer on the job–and wanting more

Demonstrators protest wages in the fast food industry in July in St. Louis. (Belleville News-Democrat, Derik Holtmann/Associated Press)

Workers in the fast food industry are walking off their jobs Thursday in what is being called the industry's largest ever strike. The protestors, expected to strike in more than 50 cities, are trying to drum up public attention and raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15.

What's unusual about their efforts is that they aren't protesting the actions of a single company or necessarily trying to organize themselves as part of a labor union, even if they're being supported by labor groups. Rather, they're trying to enact change at the national level, altering federal law.

That's at least in part because most fast food workers are employed by individual franchisees, and the high turnover rates in the industry have historically generated little interest in workplace change. If you're only staying in a job for six months, after all, you're unlikely to care much about making it better. For years, the fast food industry was one of the "100 percent turnover" industries: Businesses that started the year with one workforce but would entirely replace it--at least once, if not more--by year's end.

But that ratio has been creeping steadily downward. A report in QSR, the "quick-service restaurant" industry's major trade publication, shows that turnover was as high as 120 percent in early 2009, but dropped to around 90 percent in 2011. A spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association says its 2010 Operations Report puts employee turnover at "limited-service" restaurants at just 60 percent. Meanwhile, figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that turnover in the "accommodations and food services" industry was 84 percent in 2001 but dropped to 61 percent by 2012, slightly higher than the nadir in 2010 of 57 percent. Those numbers include restaurants and businesses that pay more than the fast-food industry--so they're likely lower than for those who truly hold "McJobs"--but they also show a general decline.

There's an obvious reason for the drop: Unemployment. When it's low, it's harder to get people to stay in jobs, particularly low-wage ones. When it's high, it's easier, and turnover drops. The older ages of fast food workers are also surely having an impact on turnover, too: With roughly 80 percent of the industry's workforce now older than 20, they're more likely to be in need of steady employment and less likely to be seeking jobs for temporary periods of time.

In most industries, high turnover prompts company leaders to invest more in their workforce so they don't have to spend money to retrain workers or lose the institutional knowledge of long-term staffers. Those economics may not apply as well to the fast food industry, says Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "They want a certain amount of turnover," he says. Employees that stick around longer get higher wages, he says, and it's become increasingly less costly to replace workers: The advent of computer-based training programs over the past 20 years has significantly lowered the cost of getting new workers up to speed.

So do the longer tenures mean fast food workers will start forming unions? Labor experts appear doubtful: Even with longer stays on the job, turnover is still high, and the franchise ownership structure of the industry makes that unlikely. That said, longer tenures help to explain why these protests are getting bigger and more prevalent now. Says Lichtenstein: "a more permanent workforce leads to people having a more permanent stake in the job."

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

The beef with low wages

Who actually holds a McJob?

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