Low fast-food wages force workers to seek public aid, Indianapolis protesters say [INDYSTAR]

(Photo: Michelle Pemberton/The Star )

McDonald’s restaurant crew member Dwight Murray has worked four years for the fast-food giant, pulls downs $8 an hour and also relies on food stamps to help support himself and a daughter.

The 27-year-old said he needs food stamps because his barely above-minimum wage doesn’t stretch far enough, even when he works a full 40-hour week.

“There’s no money left for groceries,” Murray says.

Which is why Murray decided to march Tuesday in front of the McDonald’s at 16th and Meridian streets in Indianapolis as part of a union-organized protest in 20 cities of the low wages that are common in the fast-food industry.

“We can’t afford to support ourselves and our families,” said Murray, who marched outside the restaurant over the lunch hour in his black McDonald’s uniform shirt. “To me, if we work here, why do we have to depend on Social Security and food stamps?”

The rally by the Fight for 15 campaign, which has support from the Service Employees International Union and Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, cites a new study by the University of California-Berkeley that found 52 percent of line workers at fast-food restaurants must rely on food stamps or other forms of public assistance to support their families.

The total taxpayer tab for welfare for fast-food workers: nearly $7 billion a year, according to the study. About $1.2 billion of assistance goes to McDonald’s workers alone, the study says.

It was that whopping tax-supported assistance that prompted Fran Quigley, a law professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, to hang a placard in Spanish around his neck saying “Huelga Por 15” and join the 17-person rally.

“I am tired of subsidizing the McDonald’s poverty-level wages,” Quigley said. “The cheap food we enjoy comes at a cost to us — in public assistance.”

In a statement Tuesday, McDonald’s said its wages “are based on local wage laws and are competitive to similar jobs in that market. We also provide training and professional development opportunities to anyone that works in one of our restaurants.”

Rally organizers want the Indiana legislature to increase the state’s $7.25 minimum wage, said Nancy Guyott, president of the Indiana State AFL-CIO, who briefly marched in the rally.

Big fast-food franchises “have the means to do that (raise wages) but instead they are shifting the cost to the taxpayers,” she said. “This is a societal problem we need to fix.”

Bill Church, a Carmel restaurant franchise consultant who also is president of the Mr. Dan’s hamburger chain in Indianapolis, said fast-food operators operate on thin profit margins and raising wages is “not feasible” for most. “You just can’t make dollars out of thin air to pay people (more),” he said.

And low wages are hardly confined to the fast-food industry, Church said. “Movie theaters and car washes. There are a lot of other industries as well … in that same pay scale.”

Rally organizers said they aren’t asking the public to boycott McDonald’s or other fast-food franchises over the wages they pay.

 By Jeff Swiatek, jeff.swiatek@indystar.com8:57 p.m. EDT October 15, 2013

Call Star reporter Jeff Swiatek at (317) 444-6483. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSwiatek.

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