While some claim that it’s the workers’ fault—for not being educated enough to qualify for other jobs, or for not being grateful enough that they have employment—there’s ample evidence that supports the contrary.
Fast-food chains largely escape any consequence for exploiting workers because they’re dealing with a group of people who essentially have no legal recourse. The public is subsidizing that exploitation and the government isn’t hindering it. But it now seems that the whole cynical system will come crashing down sooner rather than later.
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Full-Time Still Equals Food Stamps
Fast-food workers usually make the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. But that’s worth even less than you might think: A recent report from the National Employment Law Project found that today’s minimum wage is effectively 30 percent less valuable than it was in 1968.
New York pays a slightly higher average of $9 per hour, but that amounts to an annual salary of only $18,500 for full-time workers. In other states, that number can dip as low as $11,000. Unable to make ends meet on wages from companies like McDonald’s, many fast-food workers are forced to turn to state and federal government to bridge the gap via food stamps, welfare and other social programs.
But the pizza chain is hardly unique in its reluctance to extend benefits to employees. University of Pennsylvania sociologist RobinLeidner told Salon that fast-food coporations regularly skirt legal issues by making the majority of their employees part-time: “No one gets enough hours to trigger the legal protections, and to make them eligible for any health benefits…You can’t earn enough with one job, but given the unpredictability, it’s extremely hard to hold down more than one.”
Photo: Papa John's Facebook
Smile With Your Eyes, Damn It
According to Robin Leider, author of Fast Food, Fast Nation, fast-food workers are “heavily surveilled.” From the cash registers that track how quickly they’re making sales to corporate headquarters that are constantly dissecting store analytics to bump up revenue, little of the day-to-day operation escapes scrutiny.
Even employees’ facial expressions are monitored and controlled. Authors Tony Royle and Brian Towers write in their book, Labor Relations in the Global Fast Food Industry, that workers’ personal interactions with customers are highly scripted, down to the delivery of specific lines and facial expressions.
Unionization Has Been Rendered A Near Impossibility
Fast-food workers in New York City have staged two historic strikes during the past week. What made them so historic? They’ve never happened before. If there’s any group of employees with something to strike against—and in need of a union—it’s fast-food workers. But the New York Times reports that the reason it’s so difficult for fast-food workers to organize is simple: high job turnover. Ruth Milkman, a sociology professor at the City University of New York reports, “...by the time you get around to organizing folks, they’re not on the job anymore.”
Photo: John Sullivan/Getty Images
The Answers Aren’t Answers at All
“If you don’t like it, leave” is the oft-given reply to worker complaints. But it’s hardly that simple. Considering that 2012 saw a continuation of some of the worst unemployment rates in decades, there’s rarely anywhere else to go. Additionally, fast-food jobs are no longer the domain of high-school kids. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the average age of industry workers is 28, and for women in particular, it’s 32.
Annette Bernhardt, policy codirector for the National Employment Law Project, explained to The Atlantic, “Increasingly working families are depending on this industry, and unless we confront the serious problem of low wages in the fast food industry, we’re not going to solve the job quality problem for the labor market as a whole.”
With about seven out of 10 growth occupations over the next decade expected to be in low-wage fields, there are few opportunities for workers to break the cycle of “working poor.”
On the other hand, McDonald’s saw its profits increase 130-percent over the last four fiscal years. With its army of workers earning little money and even less in benefits, it’s easy to see why.
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and medical writer. In addition to reporting the weekend news on TakePart, she volunteers as a webeditor for locally-based nonprofits and works as a freelance feature writer for TimeOutLA.com.Email Andri | @andritweets | TakePart.com