‘How are we supposed to live?’: fast-food workers squeezed by inflation

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Minerva Rodriguez has worked at McDonald’s in Houston, Texas, for more than 23 years. She is paid $12 an hour and says she is doing the work of two to three people because the restaurant is chronically understaffed. Now she, like many Americans, is facing another crisis: runaway inflation. And while she has noticed the food prices at her store have increased, pay has not.

“The wages are incredibly low and not sufficient for the work we do,” said Rodriguez, who joined the Fight for $15 and a union movement to push for higher wages and better working conditions. “They don’t want to lose that extra money. If they can have their present workers do double the job and not have to pay another worker it’s a benefit for them, but what happens with us? With food costs rising and gas prices rising, how are we supposed to live?”

Inflation is hitting Americans hard. US consumer prices increased 8.6% from May 2021 to May 2022, the highest increase since 1981, outpacing overall annual wage growth at 5.2% in May 2022. Food prices have increased more than 10% over the year. A gallon of gas is over 50% more expensive than a year ago. The median monthly rent in the US hit an all-time high of $2,002 a month in May 2022.

Among those bearing the heaviest brunt of the rising costs of basic necessities are fast-food workers, the majority of whom are paid less than $15 an hour with few or no benefits. Many of these workers are not seeing any pay increases to correlate with the rising prices they are facing for food, shelter, clothing and transportation.

And while workers in the fast-food industry are struggling with low pay and understaffing, corporate fast-food chains have reported immense profits.

McDonald’s reported record sales growth in 2021 at 13.8% and a profit of $7.5bn, and the company’s CEO, Chris Kempczinski, was paid more than $20m in 2021, more than 2,250 times the median worker pay.

Yum! Brands, which owns the fast-food chains Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, reported a $399m profit in the first quarter of 2022, a 22% increase from the first quarter of 2021. David Gibbs, the CEO of Yum! Brands, received a salary more than 2,100 times that of the median worker pay, at $27.5m in 2021.

Chelsie Church, a shift lead manager at a Taco Bell in the Denver, Colorado, area for about one year, started a petition on Coworker recently, pushing for the company to raise wages, as the low pay has left workers struggling to make ends meet. Church says shifts are grossly understaffed, and that low pay undermines hiring and retention as competitors nearby pay better.

“No one can live off $13 an hour,” said Church. “We have to deal with angry customers all the time about our prices going up, but our pay isn’t.”

Church said her biweekly paycheck doesn’t cover basic bills and expenses such as food, gas and other necessities. As a shift lead manager, she received a pay increase to $16 an hour, but she argued the extra workload and responsibilities are not worth it and other employers start entry-level workers at that pay.

No one gets a break. I don’t get a break

Chelsie Church

“They’ve had quite a few people turn down the job because it’s not going to be enough to pay rent, or help you buy kids’ clothes and food,” she said. “Everyone is just busting their butt with extra work they’re not getting paid for. No one gets a break. I don’t get a break.”

In Kansas City, Missouri, where Fran Marion has worked as a shift lead at Taco Bell for about one year, she has experienced similar problems of low pay, understaffing and overwork – all while inflation drives up her cost of living.

“I make $16 an hour and I’m literally still living paycheck to paycheck and the pay definitely doesn’t match the work they expect from me at all,” said Marion. “I’m so drained from having to fill in those extra positions plus do what upper management wants me to do within the time frame that they need me to do it in.”

She gets no paid time off and can’t afford the health insurance coverage offered to employees by the company.

“Everything is going up but pay,” added Marion. “We’re human like everybody else. We may not be doctors or lawyers, but we’re still workers and we’re people who struggle to provide for our families.”

At Burger King in Independence, Missouri, Bill Thompson makes only $11.15 an hour after 10 years with the company. With inflation, it has become even more difficult for Thompson to make ends meet. He hasn’t received any recent pay increase, while working understaffed.

“I’m doing the work of three people,” said Thompson. “Food prices have tripled on meat and dairy. We already go to food pantries and we get food nobody else likes, like peanut butter, powdered milk and mystery meat. Where’s the dignity in that?”

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