Fast Food Workers Across The U.S. Stage A Walkout For Fair Wages

From low pay to lax overtime rules, fast food workers are protesting for an end to unfair conditions.

If you want fries with that, you might want to learn how to make your own. Starting today (July 29) fast food workers will stage strikes across New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Flint, Michigan—the latest chapter in a series of protests over the past year aimed at bettering labor practices and increasing wages in the notoriously low-paying industry.

In late 2012, 200 New York City fast food workers walked away from the fryers in protest, and in April, that number doubled—400 New York City workers went on strike, joined by fast food workers in four other cities who demanded $15 an hour wages and fair labor practices.

In May, progressive coalition Fast Food Forward released a report showing rampant wage theft throughout the fast food industry—out of 500 workers from McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Papa John’s, 84% reported some form of wage theft, like working overtime without pay or lack of reimbursement for delivery workers’ gasoline. That same month, New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, announced his office would launch an investigation into the matter. Just this past week, five Seattle fast food workers filed criminal complaints against their employers for withholding wages illegally under Seattle law.

Taking away earnings from already meager paychecks comes in subtler ways as well. Fast Food Forward recently released a video about McDonald’s use of prepaid Visa and JP Morgan Chase cards as paychecks for their employees, showing all sorts of spurious surcharges, even for checking the balance on the account. Devonte Yates, 21, a cashier at a Milwaukee McDonald’s franchise makes $7.25 an hour, but the fees on his card take out $40 to $50 of his monthly earnings.

"That’s how we get paid every other Monday," Yates says. "The card has fees for everything you do. I swipe my card for everything, from buying a pack of gum to paying a phone bill. There’s a $0.50 charge every time you check your balance."

That $0.50 charge is significant when it’s coming out of a $350 monthly paycheck. Because Yates’ restaurant keeps him on call without regular hours, he says he has no way to pick up a second job, despite the fact that his store only pays him for part-time work. "At my store, if you try to close your availability, if you say you can only work a certain amount, [my supervisor] says you might as well not work there," Yates says.

When I reached out to McDonald’s for comment, I was told that because Yates’ store was operated by a franchisee, it did not reflect nationwide company employment practices. "I strive to comply with all laws related to employment and pay and work hard to provide a positive work experience for all my employees," Deborah Allen, the franchisee, said in a statement. She also said she did not force her employees to be paid by paycard. "At any time, any crew member being paid via pay card can ask to be paid by paper check," she said.

A new study put out by the National Employment law Project shows that positions like Yates’ cashier gig make up 89.1% of fast food jobs, but that these workers only make a median wage of $8.94 an hour.

"I’m going to continue to speak out on this, and I hope that people will understand that this is wrong. People should not have to go through this in order to get paid," Yates says. He is currently studying for a career in criminal justice, but making ends meet in the home he shares with his mother, a correction officer, and his 16-year-old sister, is rough. "If it wasn’t for the help of my family members, I’d pretty much be homeless."