Half of fast-food workers rely on public assistance to make ends meet

October 15, 2013

WBEZ/Shannon Heffernan
Demonstration at a Chicago Subway restaurant in August of 2013. Multiple workers walked out as part of a city-wide action.

Over 50 percent of frontline fast-food workers rely on some sort of public assistance to support their families. In Illinois, the price tag for that assistance is $368 million. Those statistics came out Tuesday in a report from University of California-Berkeley and the University of Illinois.

Devonte Yates works at a McDonald’s in Milwaukee. “I don’t like [relying on food stamps],” he said. “It’s something I have to do to eat at night. I work hard everyday. If it weren’t for workers, these companies wouldn’t thrive.”

Jack Temple works at the National Employment Law Project, which released a companion report. That report showed that providing public assistance for workers at the 10 largest fast-food chains costs taxpayers $3.8 billion each year; public assistance costs for employees at McDonald’s alone costs $1.2 billion annually.

“These companies operate on a business model that leaves low-paid workers unable to buy basic necessities and leaves taxpayers on the hook,” said Temple.

In a written statement McDonald’s said, “The fact is that McDonald’s and our independent franchisees provide jobs to hundreds of thousands of people across the country. As with most small businesses, wages are based on local wage laws and are competitive to similar jobs in that market.”

The UC Berkeley and University of Illinois report looked at core workers, those employees working at least 10 hours a week and 26 weeks a year. The study found most of that group did not fit the fast-food worker stereotype of a teenager or student living at home.

“More than two-thirds of core, frontline fast-food workers across the country are over the age of 20, and 68 percent are the main wage earners in their families,” said Marc Doussard, one of the studies co-authors.

In response to the report, Scott DeFife of the National Restaurant Association said, “These misleading efforts use a very narrow lens and selective data to attack the industry for their own purposes.”

Slicing the data at a different angle, DeFife noted, “40 percent of line staff workers in restaurants are students.”

Tuesday’s reports come after a year of walk outs at fast-food restaurants and retail stores across the country, including this summer in Chicago.

Shannon Heffernan is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @shannon_h