Chicago Tribune, October 15, 2013
Sonia Acuna cobbles together earnings from two full-time jobs at fast-food restaurants and said she still needs help from a federal program to buy food for her family.
"It's not fair that we work so much to make $8.25 per hour," Acuna said during a small rally Tuesday in front of a Near North Side McDonald's restaurant to mark the release of a report examining the public cost of low-wage fast-food jobs.
More than half of the families of fast-food workers are enrolled in public assistance programs, such as food stamps and Medicaid, according to "Fast Food, Poverty Wages: The Public Cost of Low-Wage Jobs in the Fast-Food Industry." The report was funded by Fast Food Forward, a New York City-based coalition of workers and labor, religious and community groups campaigning for higher wages.
The report pegged the cost of public assistance for fast-food workers' families at $7 billion per year. More than half that amount was attributed to Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program. Food stamps cost $1.04 billion a year on average, and the earned income tax credit cost $1.91 billion. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program cost $90 million.
The report found that the restaurant and food service sector has the highest public program participation rate of any industry. And fast-food workers and their families are more than twice as likely as other working families to be enrolled in public programs because of their low wages, limited work hours and low benefits.
Acuna, 41, said she qualifies for $175 a month from a federal program that provides what is known as food stamps. The mother of four said her husband works part time at a manufacturing company, but she is the breadwinner, working a 4:15 a.m.-to-11 a.m. shift in the kitchen of one McDonald's restaurant and a 9 p.m.-to-4 a.m. shift in the kitchen of another one nearby. She makes $8.40 per hour at one and $8.75 at the other.
McDonald's said in a statement that its wages are based on local wage laws and are competitive to similar jobs in that market.
"The fact is that McDonald's and our independent franchisees provide jobs in every state to hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Those jobs range from entry-level part-time to full-time, and we offer everyone the same opportunity for advancement," McDonald's said.
Tyree Johnson, 45, said he works 15 hours every two weeks unloading boxes at a fast-food restaurant. He qualifies for $200 per month of federal assistance for food and lives in a hotel that charges $90 per week. He said he doesn't make enough money to save for an apartment security deposit.
"It's a shame that I have to live on public aid and Medicaid just to survive," Johnson said at the rally, which was organized by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago union. The union has initiated fast-food and retail worker protests in downtown Chicago aimed at increasing workers' wages to $15 per hour.
In general, the report found that working families account for more than two-thirds of enrollments to the four public programs. The total cost of that assistance for working families, including fast-food workers, averaged $243 billion per year between 2007 and 2011.
"Even at full time, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour fails to provide sufficient income for workers to provide food, housing, health care, transportation and other basic needs for their families," said the report, sponsored by the University of California at Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education and the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"Fast-food companies rely on the fact that taxpayers will pick up the slack for their low-wage workers," state Sen. Jacqueline Collins, D-Chicago, said at the rally.