‘We can’t survive on $7.25’ chant local fast food protesters

Posted at 2:08 PM, Dec 05, 2013
and last updated 2013-12-05 18:32:38-05

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) -- A group of fast food workers joined a national movement to protest low wages.

Protests were planned in more than 100 cities on Thursday, which was organized to be a national "strike wave" against the $200 billion a year fast food industry, according to local organizers.

The Richmond group swarmed the McDonald's on Hull Street in south Richmond.  The group of protesters, around 50 in number, walked up to the outside window of the restaurant chanting: "We can't survive on $7.25!"

The federal minimum wage is $7.25, and protesters want to see that number raised to $15 an hour. Proponents of the movement also want fast workers to have the right to unionize.

More than half of fast food workers have to rely on public assistance programs since their wages aren’t enough to support them, a report found in October. 

According to a University of California Berkeley Labor Center and University of Illinois study out Tuesday, 52% of families of fast food workers receive assistance from a public program like Medicaid, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

That’s compared to 25% of families in the workforce as a whole. The report estimated that this public aid carries a $7 billion price tag for taxpayers each year.

The numbers are based on publicly available data on public assistance programs from 2007-2011.

The median pay for the fast food workers nationwide is just over $9 an hour, or about $18,500 a year. That's roughly $4,500 lower than Census Bureau's poverty income threshold level of $23,000 for a family of four.

Officials within the restaurant industry have publicly responded to the protests, calling them a publicity stunt. Most fast food workers already make more than minimum wage, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Approximately 50 million Americans eat at fast food restaurants each day, which accounts for 25 percent of the population.

According to the publication The Daily Best, there are more than 274 fast food restaurants in Metro Richmond, or 134 restaurants per 100,000 people. That led to the Capital of the Confederacy being ranked as third fast food capital in the United States. The most prominent chain is Subway.

The movement began with a small walkout in New York City last year and has since gathered momentum. Strikes this past August drew fast food workers in 60 cities, organizers said.

The National Restaurant Association contends that the demonstrations are a "coordinated PR campaign engineered by national labor groups," and that "relatively few restaurant workers have participated" in past demonstrations.

A McDonald's spokeswoman said the events planned for Thursday "are not strikes," and consist only of outside groups "traveling to McDonald's and other outlets to stage rallies."

Industry officials have criticized the campaign, claiming increased starting wages will hold back job growth and increase prices.

The effort has drawn support from the Service Employees International Union, one of the country's largest, as well as activist groups. A petition that has drawn nearly 50,000 online signatures calls on industry leaders "to pay your workers $15 an hour so they can make ends meet and Americans can stop paying for the hidden costs of poverty wages."

In Congress, a group of 53 lawmakers sent letters Wednesday expressing support for higher wages to McDonald's, Wendy's, Domino's Pizza, Burger King and Yum! Brands, which operates KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.

"We are proud to stand with workers who continue to fight for an economy that works for everyone," the officials wrote.

A McDonald's spokeswoman said Wednesday that the company is "committed to providing our employees with opportunities to succeed," offering competitive pay, training and the chance for advancement. Wendy's said it was proud to give entry-level employees "the opportunity to learn important business and personal skills so they can either grow with us or move on to another career."

Domino's rejected the "fast food" label, and said only three of its employees had taken part in the August protests, none of whom were scheduled to work at the time. The pizza maker said its delivery drivers make more than minimum wage with tips included, and that it serves as a second job for many employees who work only evenings and weekends.

"90 percent of our U.S. franchisees started as delivery drivers or at in-store positions," as did many other managers and corporate staff members, spokesman Tim McIntyre said. "We are a company of opportunity."

The other companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

President Obama also called out the plight of fast food workers in a speech Wednesday, saying they "work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty." He said it was "past time" to raise the minimum wage.

The rallies planned for Thursday follow protests last week at a number of Wal-Mart locations, where workers and activists have called on the company to grant workers more hours and pay full-time employees at least $25,000 a year.

CNN contributed to this report.