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