Demanding a living wage

All of us are to blame because fast-food workers do not earn a living wage.

By Molly T. Marshall

Fast-food workers in Kansas City have been marching, taking an “unofficial strike” from their jobs at Burger King, Wendy’s and McDonald’s, to name three of the worst offenders. Joining similar rallies all over the nation, they are putting these and other restaurant chains on notice that the industry pays poverty-level wages to many of its entry-level workers.

These rallies dovetailed with a new National Employment Law Project report, which said non-managerial positions in the fast-food industry are among the lowest paying in the nation, with a median wage of $8.94 an hour. That would amount to an annual full-time wage of about $18,500. Making the requisite $7.25 would garner approximately $15,000 per year.

Who can survive on minimum wage – much less support a family? Simply put, fast-food workers don’t make enough money to live on.

The location of these fast-food outlets in lower income neighborhoods compounds the problem. Usually they are the only ones hiring. Persons, disproportionately minorities without access to educational privilege, find these jobs the only work available, and they remain in them far longer than intended. Their outrage is understandable.

Congress last voted to raise the federal minimum wage in 2007. The last increase occurred in 2009. The President recently urged an increase to $9 an hour (from federal minimum of $7.25), but Congress has not acted on the request.

The ranks of the working poor now exceed 47 million, driven in part by the steep erosion of wage standards throughout our economy. Over the last 40 years, the real value of the federal minimum wage has fallen nearly 30 percent.

Those who only get about 30 hours of work every two weeks then have the additional challenge of health benefits. A friend who works in a public health clinic recounts the travail of individuals and family members who must choose between food and the needed prescriptions for health.    

Who is complicit in this? We all are. An intersection of many factors contributes to this economic devastation of the working poor. People like quick, cheap food, and the prospect of preparing dinner at the end of a long workday defaults to these options. I am surely guilty. My late husband used to say: “When I want to hide something from Molly, I put it in the oven.”

Corporations like to make mega profits, and they rarely pass earnings onto workers in any substantive way. Further, they loudly protest that they cannot afford raises and lambaste “union organizers” for meddling.

The Economic Policy Institute, which advocates for low-wage workers, reported that chief executives at the nation’s top restaurant companies earn more in one morning than the average minimum-wage worker in their restaurant earns in a year. Yet, the CEOs warn that higher pay for their workers would result in fewer jobs.

Another factor is lack of access to higher education, a reality compounded by draconian measures in many states to cut costs. Urban youth are vulnerable to academic marginalization, and many give up the dream of college. Thus, entry-level positions become a way of life, fraught with nearly insurmountable obstacles.

Where is our outrage? Are we so preoccupied with securing our own well-being that we ignore legitimate demands for a living wage? The Old Testament lesson for this coming Sunday contains this exasperated prophetic word:

“When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:15-17)

Many more prophetic texts – as well as the teaching of Jesus and early Christianity – urge the faithful to keep the poor in view and act in their behalf. Piety without compassionate practice is readily condemned.

One reason that so many worldwide are fascinated with Pope Francis is his call to simplicity. A priest friend of mine said that the pontiff’s personal ethics, which identifies him with those of meager resources, has “the whole of the Vatican off-balance.”

I pray that the whole church will be off-balance, especially if it means a return to our core mission of caring for the least of these.


OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.