The True Cost of Cheap Eats: Fast Food Workers in Wisconsin Strike

2:02 pm in Uncategorized by WI Budget Project

Fast food workers in Wisconsin took part in a national strike today to rally for higher wages. Strikes took place in Milwaukee, Madison, Wausau, and other Wisconsin cities. Workers are advocating for a wage floor of $15 an hour.

Wages in the fast food industry are low, and benefits are scarce.  A typical front-line worker in a fast food restaurant earns $8.69 an hour, and only 13% of workers receive health benefits through their employer. In Wisconsin, 28,000 people work in front-line fast food service.

Low wages in the fast food industry might be more acceptable if workers had opportunities to earn higher wages as they gained experience and seniority. But fast food jobs offer very limited opportunities for advancement. Only 2.2% of jobs in the industry are managerial, professional, or technical occupations, and most people who start as front-line workers have few opportunities to move up.

Many fast food workers are struggling to raise families on very low wages. The median age of fast food workers is 29, and two-thirds of all workers are women, characteristics that might contrast with our mental picture of a “typical” fast food worker.  To see just how hard it is to get by on fast food wages, you can enter your family characteristics and city of residence into this calculator, and find out how many hours you would have to work at fast food wage levels for your family to achieve economic security.

The low wages and poor benefits of fast food workers mean that many workers receive economic support from state and federal programs. In Wisconsin, 34% of fast food workers’ families participate in at least one of three public programs: the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, and SNAP (formerly called Food Stamps).  The total public cost of fast food worker participation in these programs was $166 million in 2011, an amount that would be reduced if fast food workers were paid higher wages.