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Government, Politics & Issues

Hearing gives voice to study showing fast-food workers rely on public assistance

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Proponents of boosting wages for fast-food workers and other minimum-wage workers held a public hearing Monday at St. Louis City Hall to publicize a study showing how many fast-food workers rely on public assistance.

The event organized by Jobs with Justice’s Workers’ Rights Board featured employees  saying how wages at fast-food restaurants aren’t high enough to stay off of public assistance -- such as Medicaid or food stamps.

The event promoted a study from the University of Illinois and the University of California-Berkeley estimating that 52 percent of “the families of front-line fast food workers need to rely on public assistance programs, costing taxpayers nearly $7 billion a year.” 

That report also estimated that Missouri fast-food workers take around $150 million worth of public assistance each year. The study – funded by organized labor-aligned Fast Food Forward -- used publicly available data, from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to arrive at their estimates.  

Allen MacNeill, a professor of history, politics and international relations at Webster University, said during his testimony that the study's findings study are “shocking, but not surprising.”

“Not surprising because people often wonder: How do workers live on the money that they earn in the fast-food industry?” McNeill said. “And now we know the answer. They don’t. They have to rely on other sources of public assistance. It’s shocking because this amounts to a public subsidy to some of the largest and most profitable corporations in the country.”

MacNeill also emphasized that the study's numbers were estimates, not exact numbers. He also said the study excludes managers and some part-time workers.

"So it's important to understand it covers a limited set of the fast-food workforce and focuses only on the largest public assistance programs," said MacNeill, adding that it looked at federal programs like Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

'Food on the table'

Monday’s hearing was part of a local and national movement to boost wages and improve conditions for fast-food workers. In the past few months, activists have staged walkouts with local fast-food employees leaving their posts to protest for higher wages.

The campaign would raise the mininum wage to $15 an hour. and make it easier for workers to form a union.

Some fast-food workers who spoke Monday said their pay was inadequate. That included Alisha Snider, a Wendy's employee from north St. Louis County.

“I rely on food stamps each month to put food on the table,” said Snider, who has worked at Wendy’s for two years. “I work hard every day and I don’t make enough to feed my family and pay all my bills. I receive public assistance not because I want to but because I have to make sure my children eat. Wendy’s should pay us more, so we don’t have to worry about where our next meal will come from.”

Krystal McLemore, an employee at Taco Bell, said her $7.65 an hour wages make it difficult to pay her rent.

“I usually clock anywhere from 30 to 40 hours a week, which is barely enough to pay my rent,” McLemore said. “My rent is $525 a month, but I’ve been late the last couple of months. So I have to pay the [full rent] and my checks barely cover that. It’s hard.”

The panel hearing the testimony included state lawmakers, aldermen and representatives of religious organizations.

State Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis, said that he considered working at a fast-food job after he had trouble finding a job after receiving a graduate degree. Had he not been hired as a legislative aide, he said, “I would not be sitting here today – I’d be on the other side of this mic.”

“And that hit home directly to me,” Butler said. “I hope that will hit home to my colleagues. I hope that will hit home to the large corporations… that cannot continue to take away from the communities that made them rich.”

St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones added she’s increased wages for treasurer’s office employees.

“If you come work for the treasurer’s office, the minimum that you’re going to make is $8.25 an hour,” Jones said. “We found that people who had been there five to 10 years were still making $7.35 an hour. Which is crazy. Just crazy. So they’re now making over $9 an hour.”

'Very narrow lens'

The National Restaurant Association has sharply criticized the study when it was released in mid-October.

Scott DeFife, who serves as executive vice president of policy and government affairs for the National Restaurant Association, said in a statement that the report was part of “misleading efforts using a very narrow lens and selective data to attack the industry.”

The study fails “to recognize that the majority of lower-wage employees works part-time to supplement a family income,” said DeFife. He added that “40 percent of line staff workers in restaurants, the primary focus of the reports, are students.”

“The inclusion of the Earned Income Tax Credit shows just how misleading these efforts are, as it is a tax credit specifically designed for working families, not public assistance, and is used to inflate their numbers,” he said.

McDonald’s sent the Beacon an unsigned statement that said “McDonald’s and our independent franchisees provide jobs in every state to hundreds of thousands of people across the country.” The statement added that “those jobs range from entry-level part-time to full-time, and we offer everyone the same opportunity for advancement.”

“Our history is full of examples of individuals who worked their first job with McDonald's and went on to successful careers both within and outside of McDonald's,” the statement said. “As with most small businesses, 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.”

Alderman Shane Cohn, D-25th Ward, said the movement to increase the minimum wage “is not just within democracy, it’s also within the corporations.”

“These movements are never one-sided,” Cohn said. “They’re multi-faceted. I think the folks who are organizing today and in the future are doing a spectacular job. But we need to keep reminding ourselves that we’re going to have a lot of battles along the way. They’re not going to be easy.”

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