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Life on $7.25 an Hour: Older Workers Are Increasingly Entering Fast-Food Industry

New York Times, November 28, 2013

 By Alan Feuer

On a recent Friday evening, Eduardo Shoy left work at 6 p.m. Mr. Shoy, a deliveryman for KFC and Pizza Hut, was coming off an eight-hour shift of driving three-cheese pies and crispy chicken fingers, in an automotive blur, to private homes and businesses in central Queens.

Now it was the weekend and he was headed home. He parked his car in the little alley lot behind his house and, passing through the door, he kicked his shoes off, donned a pair of slippers and prepared a mug of tea. He sat down with his television set and ate the box of chicken he had brought back from the restaurant. Within an hour, remote control beside him, still dressed in his uniform, he had drifted off to sleep.

If Mr. Shoy were differently employed, he might have remained that way till morning. But as a fast-food worker paid the minimum wage – $7.25 an hour in New York – he didn’t have the luxury. At 10 p.m., he was up again and back in his car, this time driving to his second job, as a forklift operator at Kennedy International Airport, where he makes $13 an hour. Having worked all day, he was about to work all night: from 11 p.m. until 7:30 a.m. At 3 that afternoon, he would return to his deliveries at the restaurant. Then, at 11, he would once again drive to the airport.

Altogether, on the weekend before Thanksgiving, Mr. Shoy would sleep for 13 hours and work for 44. “Tired?” he asked, sounding puzzled by the question. “I’m too busy to be tired.”

THERE ARE 55,000 fast-food workers in New York – more than the entire population of Harrisburg, Pa. – and most, like Mr. Shoy, are struggling to stitch together a living in an industry where the median wage is $8.90 an hour. Last year, fast-food workers in Manhattan earned average pay of $19,000 – or about the cost of Mr. Shoy’s Honda. In Brooklyn, it was $15,500; on Staten Island, less.

Since 2000, the number of fast-food jobs in New York City has increased by more than 50 percent – 10 times as fast as in any other type of private job. But the conspicuous increase has not received the attention given, say, to the city’s high-tech industry, nor has it lessened the financial insecurities of this growing work force.

According to a study released in October, only 13 percent of fast-food workers get health-insurance benefits at work. In New York State, three in five have received some form of government assistance in the last five years. Meanwhile, executive pay and profits in the industry are on the rise. Last winter, Bloomberg News determined that it would take a Chicago McDonald’s worker who earns $8.25 an hour more than a century on the clock to match the $8.75 million that the company’s chief executive made in 2011.

The classic image of the high-school student flipping Big Macs after class is sorely out of date. Because of lingering unemployment and a relative abundance of fast-food jobs, older workers are increasingly entering the industry. These days, according to the National Employment Law Project, the average age of fast-food workers is 29. Forty percent are 25 or older; 31 percent have at least attempted college; more than 26 percent are parents raising children. Union organizers say that one-third to one-half of them have more than one job – like Mr. Shoy, who is 58 and supports a wife and children.

The fast-food industry says that what is going on here is a structural anomaly: that its wages were not intended to sustain a permanent work force – especially adults supporting families – and that it is happening because of larger economic forces. “The minimum wage was never meant to be a living wage,” said Steve Caldeira, the president of the International Franchise Association, a trade group for restaurants and other franchised firms. “It was meant, from the start, for entry-level workers and for those with lower skills.”

Traditionally, the fast-food industry has proved resistant to unionization. There is no one central employer against whom to strike, because most of the restaurants are franchised. McDonald’s and Burger King alone have tens of thousands of locations across the country. And until very recently, the demographic nature of the workers themselves was also a problem: many, as the industry said, were youthful transients and proved difficult to organize at job sites they were likely to leave.

But a year ago last week, the largest series of strikes against the fast-food industry in American history began in New York City. The protests started at a McDonald’s at Madison Avenue and 40th Street, where scores of angry workers stood in front of the familiar golden arches, waving signs and chanting rhyming slogans. By the end of the day, workers at dozens of franchised restaurants – Burger Kings, Taco Bells, Wendy’s and the like – had walked off the job, in an action that concluded with a rally outside a McDonald’s in Times Square.

Working under the name Fast Food Forward and funded by a giant labor group, the Service Employees International Union, the organizers set a pair of goals – to unionize the industry and to make demands for a $15 minimum wage – and began an unusual campaign of one-day flash strikes. The strategy caught on. Last April, five months after the first strike in New York, the fast-food actions – now with the umbrella name Fight for 15 (for the $15 wage demand) – spread to cities such as Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Seattle and Kansas City. Over the summer, thousands more fast-food workers took to the streets in nearly 50 municipalities, including Memphis and Raleigh, N.C., in the traditionally union-resistant South.

In New York, the recent elections resulted in the city’s three top positions – mayor, public advocate and comptroller – all being filled by supporters of the campaign, while the incoming City Council could be among the most union-friendly in decades, said Jonathan Westin, an organizer of the movement here. Mr. Westin also said support for a higher minimum wage was slowly growing among state lawmakers in Albany.

There was another sign of the movement’s growth – small, but not insignificant – that went unnoticed in the noisy play of politics.

Eduardo Shoy, a man too busy to sleep for more than four hours a night, made time this summer to attend his first strike.

MR. SHOY IS NOT what one would call a radical man. Quiet, industrious and unyieldingly easygoing, he joined the fast-food movement only after watching himself and his family descend from what seemed like a once-secure position in the middle class.

In 2008, when he was 53, Mr. Shoy lost his job driving forklifts at a warehouse on Long Island owned by the Waldbaum’s grocery-store chain. His salary at the job, which he had had for more than 20 years, was $22 an hour, and came with overtime and benefits, he said. His wife, Elana, worked as a waitress until three years ago, when she tore a ligament in her knee and had to quit. In 2003, before any of that had happened, the couple bought a house for more than $500,000 – a comfortable three-bedroom on a quiet street in Middle Village, Queens.

Now the house is almost empty, devoid of furniture except for a couch, a table and the bed wedged between them in the basement, where Mr. Shoy sleeps these days, alone. Two months ago, his wife and children – Eduardo Jr., 22, and Leslie, 19 – moved to Pennsylvania, where Leslie plans to enter college next year (with the help of financial aid) and where Eduardo Jr. works in a warehouse for Amazon.com. Mr. Shoy has remained behind, doing what he calls “the bachelor thing – working,” until he manages to sell the house that he can no longer afford.

“I thought I’d spend my life here,” he said the other day, standing in the vacancy that used to be his living room. “The way I had it planned, I’d be retired by now: full pension, Social Security. But things turned out a little different in the end. You do the best you can.”

Working more than 70 hours a week between his two jobs, Mr. Shoy makes a quasi-livable income: about $43,000 a year. But out of that, he has to pay his mortgage, his utilities, his car lease, his car insurance premiums and his children’s car insurance premiums, and then write a check each month to help them with their rent.

“Whatever comes first, I pay first,” he said.

Just two weeks ago, in an effort to accentuate the challenges of fast-food jobs, labor-union organizers published several screen grabs taken off a McDonald’s corporate website, McResourceline.com. The site, which is now unavailable, was designed to offer financial tips to a cash-poor work force. Despite its good intentions, it read like a Dickensian satire, counseling employees to break their meals into pieces (which “results in eating less and still feeling full”); to take two vacations a year (“can cut heart attack risk by 50%”); and to sell “unwanted possessions on eBay or Craigslist” for extra income.

In a statement, McDonald’s said, “This is an attempt by an outside organization to undermine a well-intended employee-assistance website by taking isolated portions out of context.”

The union organizers’ publishing of the website details came only four months after a sample McBudget that McDonald’s had prepared for its employees went viral on the Internet. The budget, which the company eventually amended, at first failed to include basic staples, like food and clothing, and earmarked only $20 a month for health-insurance payments.

Tellingly, there were two separate entries in the column labeled “Monthly Net Income”: one was for a first job (presumably at McDonald’s); the other was for an evidently necessary second.

Mr. Shoy found his fast-food job five years ago when someone mentioned having seen a help-wanted sign in the window of a KFC/Pizza Hut on Fresh Pond Road. Two years later, after his wife had to leave her own job and the couple realized that they could not survive on the minimum wage, and the occasional tip, Mr. Shoy started moonlighting at the airport.

“People ask me how I do it,” he said one morning, leaving Kennedy with a few hours to spare before he had to report to his delivery job. “But you do what you have to do. Otherwise I’d be living under the Williamsburg Bridge.”

It was troubles like these that he discussed with the organizer who initially persuaded him to join the union movement, Gregory Reynoso, a former worker at a Domino’s Pizza in Brooklyn who joined Fast Food Forward last spring. The movement itself started in late 2011, when activists from a group called New York Communities for Change – a spinoff of the defunct Acorn organization, started to receive complaints about the fast-food business from residents of Flatbush, Brownsville and Crown Heights, Brooklyn, while working there to stop a series of highly contentious public school closings.

The group, which had already organized workers at carwashes and supermarkets, repeatedly heard that the fast-food industry was a larger problem than either of those, said Mr. Westin, the executive director. Fast food not only employed more people in the neighborhoods, the residents said, but its pay and workplace conditions were arguably worse.

According to Mr. Westin, it was no accident that the effort started in New York.

“I think New York got the worst of the recession,” he said. “Folks here not only lost their jobs, and not only were the jobs created in their place low-wage jobs. In the city, rent and real estate prices – unlike in other places – kept going up.

“People were unhappy, they were struggling,” Mr. Westin went on. “Some weren’t eating multiple meals a day; others were sleeping in their cars. We understood that if we wanted to create real change, we had to look at the bigger picture – and the bigger picture was fast food.”

Within a matter of months, New York Communities for Change had assembled several partners for its organizing effort: UnitedNY.org, the Black Institute and, perhaps most important, the S.E.I.U.

Conscious of its predecessors’ failures, the coalition rejected the typical approach of filing federal grievances, calling news conferences and gathering on the steps of City Hall, and instead chose a more aggressive tactic: the roaming one-day strike. The strategy was influenced by Occupy Wall Street’s success in inserting the trope of the 1 percent into the national conversation, said Mr. Westin, a former Occupier himself. “Confronting power more openly and publicly and directly,” he added, “that came straight from Occupy.”

Melissa Autilio Fleischut, the chief executive of the New York State Restaurant Association, which supports the industry, including fast-food establishments, said that fast food was “an opportunity industry” where young workers could learn skills and advance. If the minimum wage were indeed raised to $15, Ms. Fleischut, said the result would be more automation, fewer workers hired and increased costs at the counter. “McDonald’s dollar meal would be $1.25,” she said.

At the end of August, the movement scored a success when Thomas Perez, the United States secretary of labor, mentioned the strikes in an interview with The Associated Press, calling them a reason to raise the minimum wage. That wasn’t long after Mr. Reynoso persuaded Mr. Shoy to go to Union Square, in Manhattan, for one of the campaign’s public protests. Mr. Shoy returned to his day job energized by the event. “We let them know how we were feeling,” he said. “The restaurants are making all the money. The worker isn’t getting no money at all.”

Though he didn’t make it to the other protests over the summer, he is planning to attend Fast Food Forward’s next action.

“We’ll see,” Mr. Reynoso said. “He’s busy.”

IN THE LAST TWO years, Mr. Shoy has put 30,000 miles on his Civic – most of them in repetitious five-to-10-mile spurts. His delivery job takes him on an endless circuit of strip clubs, auto-body shops and brick-faced apartment buildings in Ridgewood, Maspeth and Middle Village. He is paid $1.20 for each delivery to help defray his fuel costs. Despite the pine-tree air freshener dangling from its door, his car is stained with an abiding stench of grease.

A couple of weeks ago, during the lunch rush, Mr. Shoy hurried from the Petro Gas Company on 58th Street to the loading bays of a Western Beef grocery store in a clankingly surreal industrial park near the Kosciuszko Bridge. Then it was on to a series of row homes and apartments. On a good day, Mr. Shoy can make up to $75 in tips. Friday was not a good day.

Thursday is the one day he has off, and so, on Thanksgiving, Mr. Shoy was planning to get into his car again and drive the two hours to Pennsylvania to see his family. There would be hugs and conversation; his usual favorite dinner – baked chicken – would be replaced by turkey. Normally, in between the business of reunion on these trips, he manages to sneak away for an hour or so to nap.

He needs it. Work comes early – and, of course, stays late – Friday morning.

 

Original Article

 

 
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