Twenty-five-year-old Beijing is a father of two infant children, and makes $7.25 at an Arby's in Madison, Wisconsin. I asked Beijing why he was walking off his job on Thursday, when he desperately needs the hours.
"My last paycheck was $67, and I'm the father of two babies. They're my whole world," Beijing said, showing me the background of his phone which featured the wide-eyed smile of a small child. "What am I gonna tell him when he walks up to me and says, 'Daddy, can I have some new shoes?' Am I just gonna say no, and then tell him we have to look for a new place to live because I don't make enough at my job to pay the rent on time?"
On Thursday, August 29th, thousands of fast food and low-wage workers in approximately 50 U.S. cities are walking off the job in a massive one-day strike in protest of low wages at very profitable companies. The fast food industry makes $200 billion in profits each year. McDonald's CEO Don Thompson saw his salary triple from $4.1 million to $13.8 million just between 2011 and 2013. In the meantime, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 hasn't been raised since 2009. If the minimum wage kept up with inflation since the 1960s, it would be over $11 an hour. Elizabeth Warren pointed out that if the minimum wage had kept up with worker productivity in that same time period, it would be over $22 an hour today. Currently, for a family of four to be in poverty, that household has to make less than $23,000, according to federal poverty standards. A minimum wage earner's annual income is more than $5,000 less than the federal poverty line.
Amber works at a Dollar Tree in Madison, and makes $7.25 an hour. Her last pay stub shows she was paid just $104 in the last pay period. Because rent is so high and wages are so low, she's homeless during the week and rotates from shelter to shelter on the weekends. I interviewed her at the Hawthorne Branch of the Madison Public Library. During our interview, Amber's 8-month-old daughter, Maria had just walked down a set of steps for the first time in her life. Amber was watching from the corner of her eye while we spoke and started to cry tears of joy.
"If I could, I'd like to work with children someday. I'd be a teacher, as long as the kids were young enough that they wouldn't give me too much trouble," Amber said after I asked her dream job would be. "But it's hard enough just finding a place to stay at night and finding people to watch Maria when I'm at work."
Twenty-two-year-old Meghan is in a similar predicament -- her job at Dunkin' Donuts pays just $8.25 an hour. That low wage combined with rising costs of everything else are hindering her abilities to use the college degree she took out over $20,000 in loans to have. Critics of the fast food and retail workers' strikes say those low-paying jobs are historically meant for people in transition, or for those who lack the necessary education. Meghan, who wants to move to Chicago but lacks the financial means to do so, says that's a myth.
"I've got a bachelor's degree in political science, with a minor in sociology," Meghan said.
How am I supposed to realize the American Dream when I don't even make enough to buy food? I eat one meal a day. I live with roommates and even then 90 percent of my paycheck still goes to rent. I work hard for a very profitable company. I deserve to be treated with respect just like anybody else.
At least 80 percent of Americans will have or have had to experience poverty at some point in their lives, according to a recent survey. And the demographics of fast food workers are actually much older than the average high-school student -- the average fast food worker is 28, and two-thirds are women with children, who have to provide for families with a wage far below the poverty line with no benefits or collective bargaining rights. In the meantime, with $27 billion in annual revenue, McDonald's makes enough money to be the world's 90th largest economy.
Eighteen-year-old Gage, a father of two and a shift manager at the same Dunkin' Donuts where Meghan works, had the day off when I interviewed him at his home. He had just gotten done working a "triple-shift," when he worked from 10 a.m. Saturday to 4 p.m. Sunday, while taking one hour in between those 30 to sleep in the back office. He said his superiors told him he was "letting down the Dunkin' corporation" when he took a weekend off to visit family in his hometown of Chicago, while his wife, who also works at Dunkin' Donuts, stayed home and watched their children.
"It's not just the one store I work at. Thousands of people at thousands of stores are being treated this same way," Gage said. "If I was paid $15 an hour, I'd feel lucky to work at Dunkin' and would make sure the donuts were put in the bag right side up, that the coffee was made right, and take pride in what I do. All I'm asking for is to be treated like a human being."
An article from Business Insider made the bolder argument that McDonald's could simply adapt a more benevolent view to corporate policy and double workers' wages while making $5.5 billion in profit instead of $8.5 billion. Workers could share in the profits they make possible for their employer, and shareholders would still see dividends.
When I asked Beijing he believes he deserves $15 an hour for the work he does, he said it came down to a matter of mutual respect.
"We come to work on time, do what the manager says, and help make money for a billion-dollar company. If we all walk out, they don't make that money. So all we want is that equal respect. We help them, now they have to help us," Beijing said. "We're striking because we need to show these companies that we're through playing around."
To find a strike near you or to learn more about the fast food worker strikes, visit lowpayisnotok.org.