It’s not just fast-food workers who are underpaid

December 4, 2013

Akil Poynter, 20, works 30 hours a week at a St. Louis area McDonald’s, earning $7.35 an hour for manning the grill. Since the Florissant Valley Community College student can’t get by on that income, he took on a second job, preparing sandwiches and salads at a local Panera Bread. There he receives $7.95 an hour for another 25 hours of labor a week.

Asked the difference between his two employers, Poynter says there isn’t much of one. Panera’s nicer surroundings and higher-quality food don’t translate to better working conditions. “The environment is different but the work is the same,” Poynter noted. “Workers are working their butt off every day to get their paycheck.”

As a coalition of groups, including Fast Food Forward and Fight for 15, prepare to undertake one-day job action against fast-food establishments in 100 cities this Thursday, it’s worth taking a moment to contemplate Poynter’s words.

While conventional fast-food companies like McDonald’s are receiving the bulk of public opprobrium for paying their workers a less-than-living wage, the reality is that what are perceived as more upscale businesses are not doing much better by many of their employees.

“There is a lower tier of fast-food and a higher tier of fast-food, but if you scratch the surface a little bit, their employment practices aren’t that different,” says Haeyoung Yoon of the National Employment Law Project.

What dining industry insiders call “fast casual” was a little-known niche a decade ago, but is now the most rapidly-growing segment in restaurant dining. It encompasses everything from the salads and sandwiches at Panera Bread to the offerings of Five Guys Burger and Fries and the burrito bowls at Chipotle.

As opposed to the processed fakery of Taco Bell’s Dorito’s Locos Taco, words like “freshly prepared,” “natural,” and “hormone free” are frequently tossed around at fast casual outlets. The higher-quality food allows these restaurants to charge more for their offerings. As a result, the typical fast casual bill is more than $8 per meal, compared to just over $5 tab at a fast-food establishment.

Yet not much of that money is trickling down to those on the front lines, anymore than it is at McDonald’s. According to the salary and career website Glassdoor, cashiers at Panera Bread receive $8.09 an hour, while crew members at Chipotle earn $8.63 an hour, the same as the kitchen staff at relative newcomer Noodles and Company, where the corporate stock is now trading at more than double its May initial public offering price of $18 a share.

Sure, that’s a bit higher hourly wage than what the average crew member earns at McDonald’s or Taco Bell, which pays an average of $7.77 an hour, according to Glassdoor. But that extra money still isn’t even close to adequate to support one person, never mind a family. And those advocating raising the minimum wage know it. Congressional legislative efforts in this area are looking for an increase to $10.10 an hour. Fast Food Forward and Fight for 15 are even more ambitious, and are seeking to raise the bar to $15 an hour.

Yet, even though salaries are inadequate throughout much of the dining industry, somehow customers only get indignant about the working conditions at the most traditional of the fast-food outlets. When a Five Guys franchise owner complained earlier this year about how the cost of offering his workers health insurance under the Affordable Care Act would force him to up the prices charged for such things as the Little Bacon Burger and Cajun Style Fries, that customer indignation vanished within a few news cycles. The same thing happened when reported late last month on the less-than-wholesome working conditions endured by those working for New York “natural” mini-chain Amy’s Bread.

It’s not like we don’t know the wages offered by both are inadequate. “I don’t think you can say one company is doing much better than the others,” says Martin Rafanan, a community organizer with the Fast Food Worker Movement in St, Louis.

So why don’t we admit it? Well, tackling McDonald’s, Taco Bell and the like is quite easy for a certain young or upwardly mobile — or at least previously mobile — demographic. They aren’t going to those establishments, or at least not that often. Traditional fast food isn’t that good for you or the environment. Just ask Fast Food Nation’s Eric Schlosser or Super Size Me’s Morgan Spurlock.

On the other hand, more than a few probably lazily assume that if the quality of the menu items at a fast casual establishment is good, the salaries must be the same. Others are likely so busy congratulating themselves for their healthy and wholesome choices, they don’t pause to think about the lives of the people serving it up.

The truth is all too many of us feel we are indulging in a virtuous luxury when we dine at a fast casual outlet, and we don’t really want to ask too many questions about why the bill is still so relatively easy on our wallets. Our politics are as righteous as our taste, right?

As a result, when we begin to contemplate what besides the ingredients really goes into making Panera Bread’s Chilled Shrimp and Soba Noodle Salad or Amy’s Bread’s Vegetarian Hummus on Organic Miche sandwich, it can get uncomfortable fast. Suddenly we are pondering if simply providing politically correct menu items is enough for an organization to claim it is serving “food with integrity,” as Chipotle does, or if more needs to be done to make sure such organizations treat their workers with financial integrity.

No wonder many diners would just as soon dodge the question.

PHOTO: Demonstrators surround Chipotle Mexican Grill during a strike aimed at the fast-food industry and the minimum wage in Seattle, Washington August 29, 2013. REUTERS/David Ryder


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Where did everyone get the idea that every job in existence had to provide enough income to support a family? Some jobs simply don’t have enough value to command that salary.

Posted by JRTerrance | Report as abusive

You know what’s a low wage? Zero is a low wage. Until you’re willing to hire a worker for more than they’re currently making, don’t criticize those who do hire them.

Posted by MacroGuy | Report as abusive

“Asked the difference between his two employers, Poynter says there isn’t much of one. Panera’s nicer surroundings and higher-quality food don’t translate to better working conditions. “The environment is different but the work is the same,” Poynter noted. “Workers are working their butt off every day to get their paycheck.””

Cooking food in a fast food operation is going to be the same no matter what. The pay is low because it has to be. People aren’t willing to pay extra for their sandwich to give the workers an extra $1 an hour. The profit margins are low and the work can be done by just about anyone. The same thing goes for retail, especially Walmart. Their billions in profit is around a 3% profit margin. Giving everyone a $1 an hour raise at Walmart would send them into the losses.

Corporations hire peope at the rate they are willing to working for. If no one was willing to work for $8 an hour, the employers have to raise their wages. We see this in areas where there is underemployment. The sad thing is many of these people complaining about low wages are supporting the immigration bill that will further saturate our employment market with people willing to work for lower wages.

Posted by TheNewWorld | Report as abusive

Believe it or not, the American public does support increasing the minimum wage by a substantial majority, across party line. The bill in the House to make the minimum wage $10.10 in two steps will pass if the Speaker brings it to a vote. Labor costs are always passed on to consumers, if possible; but an exact calculation can only be made after the fact and if all the competitors likewise have to pay the increase, then it’s not particularly important. People are going to eat fast and casual fast food and twenty-five cents an order is not going to stop them.

Posted by PhilipWilliams | Report as abusive

While point of article is about conditions and payment of jobs, much more interesting is other thing – basic fastfood chain jobs once were thought of as “starting” or “summer” jobs for youngsters.
Here they’re reviewd from a full-time occupation POV.

PS 220 hours a month? And studying same time? From my univesity time i can say that more than 80 workhours a month is a killer either for your education or your health. And our teachers were VERY loyal to people skipping lections as long as they were good in labs and test/colloquiums.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

At what point in time did the notion arise that fast food jobs were EVER intended to provide a living wage?

When I was a teenager, you could scarcely find anyone working in fast food who wasn’t a teenager or college student working to provide entertainment money, pay for their first car, or help pay their way through college. Some thought of it as a way to build a resume, and some work experience. If you DID see an older person working at such an establishment, it was typically the manager or franchise owner.

This article instead takes it as a given that individuals working those jobs are “underpaid”. This, folks, is the new normal. Where before these individuals would work these jobs and graduate to higher paying work in retail (or other fields after college), now we’re told to accept that fast food is itself supposed to be a career, rather than just a temporary job on the way to a career. Why? Because there ARE no higher paying jobs now. One might reasonably wonder if maybe instead of concentrating on shrinking these businesses margins, we should be concentrating on why the jobs that ARE intended to earn a living wage aren’t materializing.

What’s worse, raising the wages for such jobs is at best a zero-sum game (as it will raise the price of food at such places, which will most heavily impact that same segment of society which frequents them most), and at worst contributes to price inflation overall.

Posted by Yashmak | Report as abusive

When the fastest growing employment segment in the U.S. are minimum wage jobs – like those in fast food chains – then the minimum wage makes a difference to our economy. More people earning more money means more people can spend it, so the extra $1 for a Big Mac or a fancy salad is irrelevant. Those are buying choices. Want to eat more cheaply? Cook at home. Can’t afford an extra dollar for a hamburger meal? Cook at home. Truth be told, most of you would pay it without even realizing it. Don’t have the time to cook at home? Your problem, not the fast food workers’. Again, this type of spending is a choice, not a right. Some of you talk like it’s your right to eat fast food. It’s not. A worker has a far more of a right to a decent wage than we do to a cheap hamburger.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

If the fast food workers aren’t happy with their pay, they should find another job that doesn’t have such a large supply of workers. The reason the supply of fast food workers exceeds the demand is that basically anyone can do the job.

As others have very-well stated, these jobs were never, never intended to support a family or provide a “living wage.” They were intended for teenagers and other part-time workers to earn extra spending money.

Of course, these workers might not have to take two jobs if they could work over 30 hours a week at their job. Another consequence of Obamacare.

Posted by Randy549 | Report as abusive

I have thought for a long time that the rewards of capitalism/meritocracy arent fairly distributed. A genius like Bill Gates is hugely rewarded for his inventions. The people who sell them, not so much. Both are a necessary piece of the capitalist system. I agree that those who invent/create should be hugely rewarded for doing so. I also think that the very necessary people who distribute the fruit of invention- burgers, software, whatever at the retail level should get a bigger piece of the pie.

To me it is a total copout to say some work just doesnt justify its cost. The fact is that without low skill work none of those inventions will reach their full potential.

Posted by DaveinKL | Report as abusive

I’m in construction and most workers make around $15 an hour. Are you telling me that highly skilled people working outside in the weather often up on roofs or under other dangerous conditions are to make the same as a skilless person working in air conditioning flat on the ground. What’s fair about that. People that work fast food do so because it’s easy work compared to many other jobs and it fits their lazy minds in that they don’t want to study for higher paying jobs.
You raise the price of fast food and I’ll eat at home more often. Fast food generally is slow except for JJ’s. And generally it’s empty calories anyway.

Posted by stoneon | Report as abusive

IIRC what some americans wrote on forums, many of these people ONCE WERE in much better jobs – jobs that perished.

From POV of one who lived through ’90s in Russia – you still have a depths to fall.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

What is this obsession about “living wage jobs”? Create your own! Whatever happened to the entrepreneurship of America? The grocery stores, dry cleaners,pharmacies, small restaurants? Ironically the very reason these enterprises could not compete against the Walmarts and Targets because people wanted to buy the cheapest stuff.
The irresistible urge to buy tremendous amount of junk produced at slave wages. Now, the very people want these companies to pay them real wages. It will not happen.

Posted by Renox | Report as abusive

I work for a florist, and two people who work there are homeless. We work 40 hours a week and our commissions come out to around minimum wage. Homeless doesn’t mean on the street, we go from sleeping in parking lots, to staying in dumpy motels, with everyone we own in our cars. You might be surprised how many people live in motels and raise families like that. And you might be surprised how many people are working and homeless.

There are 3x as many people looking for jobs as there are jobs available, across all sectors. So it’s not about being lazy, millions of people are going to have to be unemployed. It’s like musical chairs as to who that will be. Our prison system helps take care of these undesirables.

Posted by themutedtwo | Report as abusive

Worker vs employer is not a new fight.

Back when workers had real complaints, not just money but safety conditions and safe hours, they organized and struck. Since then (the early 1900s) corporations have so propagandized our sheepish, fractured public that unions are considered bad guys.

So go look in the mirror, go complain to a Reagan voter or republican since (and now Democrats,) if you wonder why so many workers get such a lousy deal. It’s your fellow American empowering corporations to screw you! “Hey you auto workers, you killed Detroit, right?”

Read some Chomsky, and organize, and strike. Begging and whining is for newborn babies.

Posted by Bookfan | Report as abusive

You know what a “fair” wage is? It’s the one I’m willing to pay as an employer and the one someone is willing to accept as an employee. Period. It’s got nothing to do with how many children you need to support, the cost of rent or anything else.

Posted by Porkroll2 | Report as abusive

I haven’t eaten at a fast food joint (yes, I mean joint) in at least a decade. The food is fast, cheap, and crappy for a reason; so I prefer to eat at home, or occasionally, at a decent full service restaurant, where I tend to tip generously if the service warrants. So, the employees of fast food joints, as well as the critics of wages paid at such joints, should consider the source of said wages – people who want fast, cheap, and crappy, and are not willing to pay more for better.

Posted by Dr_Steve | Report as abusive

@JTR: True but like MacroGuy you should understand the impetus to improve the PPP of the working poor. Exploitation is in the eye of the beholder. It’s why we periodically raise the minimum wage. And MacroGuy, this is America. We can criticize anything we want.

Agree w/The NewWorld. Think of what would happen in inner cities if welfare ended or was curtailed. Also relates to H-1B visas. Labor is THE central issue of our time. Yashmak is right – Where’s the beef? Where are real jobs? Industry sits on capital after gaming the system and citizens have to watch them invest in lowest wage countries.

JL4’s wage vs. price makes me think ‘how cheap can we hire’. That’s why we see stories about crass behavior from fast food workers. What if they invest in robots instead? When robots become cheaper. ‘How low can we go’ is what pushed jobs to our communist ‘friends’.

@Randy549: If Repuglicans weren’t coddling health care thieves maybe the dems would’ve been able to pass a bipartisan bill.

DaveinKL – The truth is that capitalism frequently masks exploitation. Gates swindled his way to the top. Price collusion is just one of his sins. It’s always been this way. The powerful will do anything to protect and increase their power.

@stoneon – It seems your preconception of fast food workers conflicts with other’s ‘designed for teens, college age, etc’. So now we vilify them as “lazy.” Nice. I love it when lugnuts lump individuals into boxes because they’re too ignorant (lazy) to think about anything other than themselves.

Renox, learn to construct a sentence. You seriously think someone can prosper opening their own pharmacy? Where, in the sticks?

Themutedtwo correctly focuses on our near future. If the nation doesn’t understand economics. Sadly, fear-mongering will destroy us.

Bookfan CORRECTLY SHINES A LANTERN. Corporations are not people. Labor = us. Organizing is the only way if the majority continues to vote for their own pocketbook. By the way, we can’t lower taxes every election. It’s not sustainable.

@Porkroll2: Tell it to someone working in the fields. Is it fair when you complain about gas prices, ticket prices or taxes? You dirtbag darwinists really need to look in the mirror. Your type is all about me, me, me. Kinda like how our society is getting to be.

Posted by Mac20nine | Report as abusive

In America today,human worth is determined strictly by corporations, based on one’s employability. We have shipped out the bulk of our manufacturing and tech jobs, and then took an ax to poverty relief. The middle class has been getting phased out since the 1980s, and the rest do not have options. When workers are dissatisfied, we see the sort of kerfluffle shown by fast food workers at the moment. Over the next year, these workers will quietly be phased out,replaced by mandatory workfare labor, at a fraction of the wages. Times have changed, and each year, more and more people will be entirely at the mercy of employers.

Posted by DHFabian | Report as abusive

Most people don’t have choices today. We shipped out the bulk of our manufacturing and tech jobs, and then wiped out poverty relief, funneling the usable poor into workfare replacement labor. We already know from experience that over the next year, these fast food workers will quietly be replaced with mandatory workfare labor, at a fraction of the wages. While those still in the middle class (or think they are) applaud, they should start thinking about the consequences. Since we began the war on the poor in the 1980s, the overall quality of life in the US has already plunged from #1 (among all nations), down to #11. The poorer the population, the fewer the consumer purchases, the fewer workers are needed, the poorer the country grows.

Posted by DHFabian | Report as abusive

I am truly stunned by the naivete shown in some of these posts. For example, how does one start a business without money or the means to do so?

Posted by DHFabian | Report as abusive

But that extra money still isn’t even close to adequate to support one person, never mind a family. EXACTLY!!! So don’t have kids until you have a decent job cause why bring them into this world when you can’t provide for them. And stop expecting that you are going to have a great life by thinking your fast food job owes you more money than the position deserves. Evolution is what it is and those who are equipped to adapt through grit and tenacity will dominate the one’s who can’t adapt. Money is a resource that we as a species will compete for. Either you adapt so that you can thrive in what could be an ideal niche, or you don’t and you merely function for basic survival. The fact that some within the human species thinks that they should granted their ideal niche in life amazes me. Those beings need to just accept that working for the monetary resources they are paid is their current realized niche and to deal with it or adapt accordingly.

Posted by QuidProQuo | Report as abusive

OK, to sum it all up: From each according to his ability; to each according to his need. Case closed.

Posted by Dr_Steve | Report as abusive

Ms. Olen,

Disclosure: Anything your picture heads up on Reuters, I read first! Not fair, but life isn’t fair. Equality is but a cruel illusion that won’t go away.

“Public opprobrium for paying…workers a less-than-living wage…” does not exist to any meaningful extent. The exploitative labor monopolies that existed at the beginning of the nineteen hundreds were entirely different in effect to today’s complaints in America.

Today America has been dragged kicking and screaming into the global economy and those living here with little in the way of education or skills have seen their standard of living decrease while the average wage and quality of life in other nations has increased significantly.

America is no longer the “rich man’s pond” where only those here can fish and catch a lot in a short time. Everyone now fishes in “our” pond. Accordingly, with the “low hanging fruit” gone it takes more and more work to fill bellies. But we’re not talking about “food security”.

I drive a ten year old car, and intend to keep it another 6-7 years (to 200,000 miles). It is well kept, reliable, I like it, and it meets my needs.

Lots of fast food workers and those employed by or at Walmart drive later vehicles, presumably by choice. Lots of them have idle wives and children, presumably by choice. If their choices are such that their work cannot support them, whose fault is that?

Americans have long lost the ability to discern between a want and a need. If you don’t believe that, look at all the bling (fancy jewelry, skinny tires, fancy rims, high-end cell phones) our lower class sports. Their kids have to have the “Air Jordan” and other “name” tennies, not the generic Converse tennies everyone wore years ago.

Understand this. Back in the forties there was an Automat in New York City. While expensive, automation is a one-time expense that eliminates many significant expenses of human employment permanently.

Any substantial hike in the minimum wage is going to do two things. First, it will speed the rate of automation of jobs in the fast food industry and such others as that technology becomes more and more capable and adaptable. Simultaneously, it will cut the American underclass off at the knees, essentially removing the “first step” onto the carousel of economic progress. The “best and brightest” can still leap on, but the marginal now fall under the bus.

With existing technology, it won’t take much of an increase in the minimum wage to make it “worth it” for fast food restaurants to offer a more limited menu from a Kiosk made from one or more recycled ship/truck container(s). Owner/franchisees will have contract people come by and resupply when the machines predict an impending shortage of anything.

Once actual assembly of fast food by robots becomes a reality, a lot of germs and spread of sickness is eliminated. Machines don’t get overtime, don’t do drugs, don’t get hauled off to jail, don’t bully each other, don’t get sick or need health insurance, don’t suffer from deadline stress, have dependents, take sabbaticals, seek promotions, earn vacations or pensions, or bad mouth the company when dissatisfied or discharged.

While machines don’t buy anything, that’s a different problem to resolve another way on down the road. By and large American purchasers are not in the slightest uncomfortable or concerned whether the coffee they drink is “fair trade”, the chicken they eat is “free range”, the beef they eat is grass-fed or the vegetables they eat are “organic”.

As consumers, they rightfully consider any “issue” as to the minimum wage or whether they aren’t paying “enough” for food out a matter between employee and employer. It’s no different than was “buying American” cars when their design, weight, efficiency and longevity as an investment did not measure up to those from other countries. Get used to it.

Americans have never accepted a direct responsibility to provide ANYONE a “minimum way of life”. That’s because we have seen how our many dovetailing lavish welfare programs have created an underclass that is growing faster than the American economy.

We have already made welfare and it’s benefits more attractive than the work for which these individuals are qualified and could aspire to in terms of WORK. Our laws and incentives should ENCOURAGE work, but, in fact, do precisely the opposite. No country can afford to have a significant percentage of the population sitting home idle.

Those in business dare not sit still and milk a “cash cow”. Others observe and flock to participate wherever profits are greater and the barriers to entry are low. Over time, all must compete on controlling cost, providing and maintaining “competitive” quality. This is where Walmart easily destroys “mom and pop” stores, and does so legitimately.

Today’s kids expect all to get a trophy. Well, in real life all DON’T become a “success”, EVER. Suck it up.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I wonder when businesses learn about the “Automat” business model. When you entered an Automat, you would see walls that had a bunch of small windowed boxes. Each contained a different food serving. On one the side, was a coin operated machine. If you wanted the food serving on display, you deposited the required amount of coins and then you can open the door so you can take the food.The only people a fast food business essentially would need is a food preparation staff. I’m sure that. with today’s technology, you can adjust it to handle drive in service.

Problem solved. No one will ever have to work for some a unlivable wage.

Posted by 1DukeZ | Report as abusive

Of course prices will go up but I don’t care because I don’t eat fast food. It’s much healthier to cook your own burgers and a whole lot cheaper.

Posted by Depraved | Report as abusive

I know many people who worked very hard, but made a nice living wage. Now, because we are in a “global” economy, they are working harder for a sub-standard wage that barely meet their needs. Welcome to the 21st century Amerikan dream.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive


That was then and this is now. From WW II until recently America was a reality unto itself. It was inevitable that it would one day become part of the rest of the world, and that has reciprocal consequences.

Americans “competing” on a level playing field with ALL who would work likely DO “work harder” for a wage that “barely meets AMERIKAN “needs”. Let’s get a little perspective here.

Americans still live a life far, far better than most “world workers”…part of the world’s top 1% in financial context. In real life everybody doesn’t get a trophy just for showing up.

In America the electricity is always on so long as you pay your bill. Same for potable water and sewage service. Anyone genuinely sick can pretty much stroll into an emergency room and get timely treatment without paying money “up front”. Here the “poor” DRIVE, have cell phones and flat screen TVs. Their children do not go out and comb the dumps for food unless someone is siphoning off money to buy drugs.

America still offers FAR more than most countries, making it the target of choice for those who vote with their feet.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Reading these comments, I can only say, the terrorists have already won. Self righteous conservative talking points about personal responsibility and entrepreneurship have won the day. No major restaurant chain has any need to raise prices if worker salaries go up; they just need to stop paying the CEO 10 million a year and watch net profits skyrocket. Ratio of CEO to average worker salaries has expanded six times since the 1970s; does anyone really believe CEOs have increased their productivity six times as fast as average workers in this time period ?

Posted by brianpforbes | Report as abusive

@Porkroll2 – you’ll pay whatever wage the government says you have to , or you can open your next restaurant in Bangladesh.

Posted by brianpforbes | Report as abusive

All you have to say is In-N-Out Burger. From what I’ve heard it’s what quality, customer satisfaction, and living wages are all about. All of you employers are right about it being your right to hire people for whatever wage the market sets… or minimum. Until you care about your employee’s stability you will have unstable employees. You will have attendance problems and loss prevention problems and customer service problems. It is an endless fight if you aren’t on the same side. That means a waist of time, effort,and training. It shows up on the bottom line either way.

Posted by notnews | Report as abusive


“Lots of them have idle WIVES and children, presumably by choice.”

Careful careful… who are these workers? Are they all men?

Posted by bshort | Report as abusive

The value of labor is the goods or services produced by the labor, hamburgers cooked, surgeries performed, movies produced etc. Arbitrarily fixing the price of an hour of low wage labor doesn’t change its value, it just makes the dollar worth less. When the government comes along and sets a minimum wage to buy the votes of its constituents, it means that each dollar buys less goods and services produced by the labor. Anyone who has a savings account and anyone on a fixed income is left with less buying power.

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

[…] It’s not just fast-food workers who are underpaid | The … – While conventional fast-food companies like McDonald’s are … really goes into making Panera Bread’s Chilled Shrimp and Soba Noodle Salad or Amy’s Bread’s Vegetarian Hummus on Organic … At what point in time did the notion arise that fast food jobs were EVER … […]

Posted by Organic Fast Food Jobs Suck « Healthfood Tips | Report as abusive

[…] Thanksgiving let us remember that those who cook our meals when we’re dining out are among the poorest and the hungriest in America. We should work to feed the hungry, of course, but we should work even harder to ensure that food […]

Posted by Bottom Chefs: A Working-Class Lens in the Competition Kitchen | Working-Class Perspectives | Report as abusive