ICYMI: On Fast Food Wages, the Daily Show Nailed It

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ICYMI: On Fast Food Wages, the Daily Show Nailed It

by  Julie Vogtman
Senior Counsel, National Women’s Law Center

I’m recently back from my summer vacation, and one of my favorite ways to catch up on the news is to watch the Daily Show episodes that have lined up on my Tivo. Not surprisingly, I missed a lot of comic gold while I was relaxing at the beach, but last Thursday’s episode – featuring the recent nationwide strikes by fast food workers calling for higher wages – especially stands out.

The whole episode is worth watching, but I think my favorite segment has to be John Oliver’s brilliant takedown of Fox News financial analyst Neil Cavuto, who thinks he knows a thing or two about working in fast food (the Cavuto bit starts around 2:15):


Cavuto’s nostalgic tale of his first work experience, which he fondly recalls as a low-paying but valuable stepping stone, encapsulates two of the most persistent – and wildly incorrect – myths about fast food jobs and other low-wage work:

  1. The demographic myth. The 16-year-old Neil Cavuto is hardly representative of today’s fast food workers, for whom the median age is 28; for women, who represent about two-thirds of fast food workers, the median age is 32. The fact is, a substantial majority of fast food workers are not kids – but many do have kids to support, which is nearly impossible to do on median wages of just $8.78 per hour [see “combined food preparers and servers”].That amounts to $17,560 a year for full-time work, more than $900 below the poverty line for a mom with two children; many fast food workers earn just the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, pushing their families even further below the poverty line. (Of course, these workers would all be better off if they earned the same wages that Neil Cavuto did back in 1974; as John Oliver points out, Cavuto’s $2.00 hourly wage adjusted for inflation would be nearly $9.50 per hour today – more than $2.00 above the federal minimum wage.)
  2. The mobility myth. Cavuto may not be suggesting that any Arthur Treacher’s employee can one day land a gig with Fox News, but his story evokes the popular conceit of a young man who starts out flipping burgers and works his way up to owning multiple franchises – or at least to a higher-paying managerial position that can support a family. It is true that “managerial, professional and technical occupations” in the fast food industry can pay reasonably well, with median hourly wages of $21.92(just under $44,000 a year for full-time work). But there’s one little catch: a new report from the National Employment Law Project found that those positions make up just 2.2 percent of fast food jobs, while the front-line jobs that pay less than $9.00 per hour are a whopping 89.1 percent. Franchise ownership positions are even more scarce, representing just 1.0 percent of the industry.

Unfortunately, the number of workers struggling to support themselves and their families in low-wage jobs is on the rise: NWLC recently found that during the recovery, 60 percent of women’s job gains are in the ten largest low-wage jobs, which includes fast food jobs. And the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show sluggish job growth that continues to be dominated by low-wage sectors.

Much needs to be done to accelerate job growth and improve the low-wage jobs that represent a growing share of our economy, but higher pay for millions of workers would be an awfully good place to start. The multi-billion-dollar fast food industry should respond to worker demands for fair wages – and Congress should raise the wage floor for all workers by passing a federal minimum wage increase.

Originally posted on Womenstake, NWLC’s Blog

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