Study highlights fast-food workers' use of public benefits

Oct. 15, 2013 @ 05:59 PM

A single mother of three, Tenesha Hueston said she makes $7.75 an hour working at a Burger King restaurant in Durham.

Hueston said she’s “barely making it” week to week, and has to rely on food stamps to help feed her family.
“We deserve better,” said Hueston, as she stood with other fast-food workers, activists and local leaders by on South Miami Boulevard in front of a McDonald’s on Tuesday.
She was one of more than 20 people, including fast-food workers and others, who participated in a demonstration held near the restaurant to try to get companies to pay a “living wage” for fast-food workers.
Officials with Action NC and the N.C. Justice Center -- both advocacy groups for low-income people -- helped to organize the event. It followed protests held in August at fast-food restaurants in Durham and elsewhere around the country. Activists were pushing for a $15-per-hour wage for fast-food workers.
The event was held the day of the release of a report that found that an estimated 52 percent of families of front-line fast-food workers in the nation were enrolled in one or more public benefit program, compared to 25 percent of the workforce as a whole.
Sponsored by the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Labor Research and Education and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of Urban & Regional Planning, the report also was backed with funding from Fast Food Forward, a movement of fast food workers in New York City to raise wages and get more rights.
To generate their findings, the researchers used government data on the annual enrollment and benefits paid by four public support programs from 2007 through 2011 for all 50 states and Washington, D.C. They also used population surveys to estimate the total amount of public benefits paid to different groups of workers.
For North Carolina, they found that 54 percent of families of fast-food workers working at least 10 hours a week, and 26 weeks per year, were enrolled in one of four benefit programs such as Medicaid.
They reported that the median pay for core front-line fast-food jobs around the nation was $8.69 per hour, and that an estimated 87 percent did not receive health benefits from their employers.
Rep. Paul Luebke, a Democrat who represents Durham County in the N.C. House, said at Tuesday’s demonstration that low wages paid by the companies can cause increased demand for programs such as Medicaid, a health insurance program for low-income families that’s paid for by the federal government, and also using state dollars. He indicated that money could be spent elsewhere.
The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Durham, also called for a living wages for fast-food workers on Tuesday. He was also part of the demonstrations in August.
Hawkins said the church often gets calls from people in the community who go through the phone book asking for help with rent or to pay their gas bill.
“I just think companies can do a better job of paying people a living wage,” he said.
The demonstration also drew Willietta Dukes, an employee of a Burger King restaurant in Durham who said she’s worked in fast-food restaurants for more than 16 years.
Until recently, she said she’s typically worked two jobs.
Dukes expected to be able to work full time at her current job, but said that because of the federal health care overhaul she has been able only to work 24 to 26 hours per week. She said she makes $7.65 per hour.
She said she pays for her heath care costs out of her own pocket, and some months can’t afford her medications.
“There’s no reason for me to live like I live, and I work hard,” Dukes said. “I want to be able to support myself; I want to be able to stand up.”
Also at the demonstration was Jeanette Lynn, who said she’s worked at the McDonald’s on Morgan Street in Durham for $7.25 per hour for about two years, with no raise.
She said she receives food stamps and also has Medicaid for herself and her three children.
“My grandma always told me to stand up for what’s right,” Lynn said, explaining why she attended the demonstration.
A statement from the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association said the industry has been an economic “bright spot” for the state, providing well-paying, reliable job and acting as a training ground.
A statement from McDonald’s said the company and its independent franchisees provide jobs in every state to “hundreds of thousands of people,” including entry-level as well as full-time work. The company also highlighted its training and professional development opportunities.
“Our history is full of examples of individuals who have worked their first job with McDonald’s and went on to successful careers within and outside of McDonald’s,” the statement said.
Burger King highlighted the opportunity for advancement in a statement, and also said its compensation and benefits are consistent with the industry. More than 99 percent of its U.S. restaurants are independently owned and operated by franchisees.
Arne Kalleberg, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sociology professor, spoke in support of increasing fast-food workers’ wages. He said it would increase their buying power, causing a ripple economic effect.
“If you put money in the pockets of people like this, they’re going to spend the money,” he said. “If you’re rich and you’re well to-do, and you get an increase in your earnings like this, you’re going to save it, invest, put it in the stock (market) maybe, but you’re not going to buy stuff.”