December 6, 2013

Hard work for low pay in fast food? Mainers know feeling well

On a day of protests in 200 cities, a report says the state’s minimum wage is far short of a livable level.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Jordan Harmon can get by on his pay from KFC, as long as he lives at his mom’s house in Buxton.

Today's poll: Fast food

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Nance Trueworthy says she doesn’t think about worker wages when she visits Burger King on Forest Avenue.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Billie Jo Leeman of Westbrook said her short stint at a McDonald’s was “the hardest job I’ve ever done for $6.75 (an hour).”

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But he knows he’ll need a new job if he wants to move out when he graduates from Bonny Eagle High School in the spring.

“I can’t get an apartment on $8 an hour,” he said Thursday, as fast-food workers across the country protested their low wages at strikes and rallies in close to 200 cities.

There were no demonstrations in Maine, said Berlin Rosen, the New York City public relations firm that helped connect organizers in various cities. The closest ones to Portland were in Lowell, Mass., and Keene, N.H.

Protesters were asking for $15 an hour, which organizers call a living wage. Most fast-food workers get closer to the minimum wage, which is set by the federal government at $7.25 an hour and by Maine at $7.50.

Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bill passed by the Legislature last spring that would have raised the state’s minimum wage to $9 an hour in 2016.

Maine’s minimum wage translates to an annual salary of $15,600 for a full-time worker. That matches the Maine Department of Labor’s statistics for the average wages of the 42,000 people who worked in the state’s 3,000 food service and drinking places in 2012.

The Job Gap Study, a report issued Thursday by the Maine People’s Alliance and the Alliance for a Just Society, calculated the living wage for a single adult in Maine to be $31,581 per year, or $15.18 an hour. The study says more than half of the state’s job openings pay less than that.

Mike Tipping, communications director for the Maine People’s Alliance, said the release of the study on the day of the fast-food strikes was “a happy coincidence.”

The coordinated nationwide protest is the latest in a year of mass demonstrations against low wages, especially in service-sector jobs, starting with a strike of 200 fast-food workers in New York City in November last year.

Last week, thousands of Walmart workers held protests on Black Friday at stores throughout the country, demanding salaries of $25,000 per year.

Fast-food companies argue that higher wages would force them to raise prices for consumers in an industry that competes by offering value. But their critics contend that income inequality is stalling the country’s economic growth and burdening taxpayers because minimum-wage workers rely on government assistance to survive.

On Wednesday, President Obama called for an increase in the federal minimum wage, saying fast-food and retail employees “work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty,” according to a report by The Associated Press.

Billie Jo Leeman, who once worked at the McDonald’s at Mill Creek in South Portland for a few months, attested to the difficulty of the work and the “very fast-paced” environment.

“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever done for $6.75 (an hour),” she said Thursday.

Tyler Lehigh, Harmon’s friend from Bonny Eagle High, said his stress level has gone down and his income has gone way up since he left his job at Burger King in Windham for a delivery job at a family-owned restaurant in the same town.

He said he has made as much money in a night at his new job as he did in a week at Burger King.

Despite their experience with the hard work and low pay, Lehigh and Harmon said they wouldn’t want to spend more for the lunch they were about to eat Thursday at the Burger King on Forest Avenue in Portland.

Most of the people who walked in and out of the restaurant said they don’t think about the wages of the workers when they go to eat fast food.

“It’s a grab-and-go before the haircut,” said Nance Trueworthy, who bought a rib sandwich at the drive-through window.

Leeman, who quit her job at McDonald’s after three months, said she feels badly for the workers but it doesn’t affect where she chooses to eat.

She was at Burger King on Thursday at the request of her 4-year-old grandson.

“They’re going to hire people anyway,” she said.

Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

lbridgers@pressherald.com

Twitter: @lesliebridgers

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Nance Trueworthy said when she stops for fast food, “It’s a grab-and-go before the haircut.”

  


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Today's poll: Fast food

Would you be willing to pay higher prices for fast food meals if it resulted in higher wages for fast food industry employees?

Yes

No

View Results