Fast-food workers deserve higher wages to support themselves

The prototypical fast-food worker is no longer the 16-year-old high-schooler working at Arby’s for gas money. Instead, the median age of the American fast-food worker today has risen to 29 years old, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compounded with age are increasing likelihoods that an individual in the fast-food industry has dependents (more than 25 percent are parents), rent or a mortgage, and some medical problems. And here’s where the problems start: Most fast food wages come nowhere near covering such expenses, nor do these jobs offer sufficient benefits to compensate.

For this reason (and others), fast-food workers began staging protests around the U.S. last week demanding an increase in pay. Workers believe they should be a paid a minimum of $15-per-hour, or roughly double the current federal minimum wage. What’s more, there’s a good chance the industry giants could afford it without needing to pass much, if anything, onto consumers. Profit margins and revenues have increased to 4.6 percent and 12.1 percent respectively, yet revenue spent on payroll has actually decreased.

However, critics decree such a proposition. They claim raising wages for fast-food workers would force restaurants to raise prices, which could hurt sales and ultimately force companies to downsize. Although we do quibble with the notion that the fast food industry would necessarily need to raise prices to a point that would drive off customers, there is a kernel of truth. In reality, it may very well be that Americans need to learn to pay more for fast food products instead of always expecting a dollar menu.

Given the current economic reality, we support increasing the wages of fast-food workers. However, we do so with some reluctance.

Raising wages for fast-food workers is not solely the cure. Higher pay does not equate to career advancement, job satisfaction, ancillary benefits or job security. A better, long-term solution is fixing the U.S. school system; an effective education, one that is affordable, engaging and keyed to current economic needs will go a long way toward getting people into growth jobs in which they can sustain themselves and their families. Many of the people currently stuck working in the fast-food industry are those who endured inadequate educational supports (31 percent have some college education). For them, higher wages may be the answer at the moment, but it should not be something we continue to lean on for future generations. It’s unfortunate, but true, that the fast food industry standard is bad for its workers; Americans’ desire for cheap food feeds this reality. Short of getting Congress to mandate higher wages (given its current composition, not likely), across the board there is little incentive for the fast-food industry to change its ways.

Make no mistake, fast-food jobs are a great place for American teens and early 20-somethings to get their feet wet learning how to appease customers, deal with bosses, take responsibility and manage a personal budget. However, once out of the nest, relying on these jobs is perilous at best. Industry giant McDonald’s confirmed this when it released a “helpful” budget journal for its workers last summer. And, yes, McDonald’s budget journal confirmed that living on its sub-standard wages is completely reasonable, so long as you have a night job, too.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the average age of the American fast-food worker had more than doubled. The article should have stated that the median age has risen to 29 years old. The Daily Illini regrets this error.