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

By Helaine Olen
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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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