These days, no one is surprised to learn about big companies paying poverty wages. But for workers at some of our country's largest fast-food chains, the truth is even uglier. These workers are not simply facing low wages -- in many instances they're earning no wages. Last month, McDonald's workers in California, Michigan and New York filed class action lawsuits against the company claiming it cheated them out of pay. It's just the latest allegation amid growing criticism of a corporation that brought in $5.5 billion in profits in 2012 alone.
Wage theft is rampant in low-wage industries, where employers are notorious for exploiting an already underpaid workforce. In the McDonald's case, the claimants accused the company of not paying workers for tasks performed before clocking in or after clocking out; not paying workers time-and-a-half for overtime hours; not providing workers with a legally required meal break or forcing them to work off the clock during a break; and not reimbursing delivery workers properly for money spent on gas, cell-phone bills and other mandatory job-related expenses. So not only are these workers experiencing long, erratic hours, with minimal benefits and job security and questionable working conditions, they're being cheated out of hard-earned wages in the process.
"I knew I wouldn't be making a lot of money," said Jason Hughes, a California McDonald's employee involved in the suit. "But I thought that a well-known company like McDonald's would treat me fairly, or at least follow the law. We brought this lawsuit because neither of those things happened."
The class-action suits bring fresh attention to just how widespread these "wage theft" problems truly are. A new survey released last week suggests that as much as 90 percent of fast-food workers are victims of wage theft. Thankfully, workers, their supporters, and state, federal and local labor agencies are becoming more vocal in reporting and cracking down on wage theft. In February, a former McDonald's franchise in Pennsylvania was found guilty of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act after workers reported working up to 25-hour shifts while earning less than the minimum wage. In that case, 300 workers were awarded back wages and damages.
With this lawsuit, workers are again making clear that they'll use any means necessary to shed light on the way low-wage corporations are holding our economy hostage with unsustainable business practices. Over the past year, workers at chains like McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, KFC and Jack in the Box have staged walkouts to demonstrate their desire for better wages and a union, often at risk of being fired. Their courage has helped fuel a national debate on income inequality and create incredible momentum toward raising wages.
The real message from all of these wage fights is clear: Until we hold some of our country's largest employers accountable to paying their workers better (not to mention paying them what they've actually earned), we'll continue to see taxpayers footing the bill for corporate irresponsibility. Because when large, profitable corporations don't pay their workers enough, those workers are forced to rely on public assistance to make ends meet.
And to be clear, these violations aren't just some fluke in our corporate-dominated culture -- they're a direct result of the way McDonald's and other fast-food corporations operate. These companies expect a certain level of service and profits, and the only way they can make that happen is if there isn't enough money on the table to pay workers for every hour they work.
Taking all of these issues into account, it's no wonder fast-food workers are joining together to demand family-supporting pay of $15 an hour and the right to form a union without being retaliated against. If given the right to organize, fast-food workers would have a stronger voice on the job and a built-in mechanism of protection to stop companies from continuing to break labor laws. A union would ensure workers get every penny they are owed for the hard work they do every day.
In an economic recovery that is sluggish as best, we can't expect everyday hardworking people to get back on their feet if wealthy corporations are stealing from them. We all need to work together to demand that both employers and policymakers raise standards to create good, family-sustaining jobs -- the kind of jobs that allow our friends and neighbors to put food on their table, care for their loved ones, and not have to sacrifice basic necessities like medication or rent. A healthy economy depends on businesses that pay enough for people to afford the basics -- not on businesses that steal from minimum-wage workers.