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Let’s talk facts, not fast-food fiction

Judith Robert | Sunday, November 24, 2013

After reading the Viewpoint column by Shaaya Ellis titled “Minimum wage and the fast food fight” (Nov. 19), I wondered whether Mr. Ellis is typical of Notre Dame students today and whether Notre Dame is providing a values-based education, one that emphasizes researching facts before writing opinions.
Referring to the demands for a livable wage by fast food workers, Mr. Ellis claims: “It is very counter-intuitive to burden American businesses with individuals’ indolence towards working hard and by demands for unearned and unrealistic wage increases.” He continues, “It is not incumbent upon business to simply dole out more money to people who either did not earn it or whose work does not merit that distinction. The amount a company can pay its employees is a function of the productivity of its business model and the productivity of its employees.”
Here’s a fact from the National Employment Law Project (NELP): For the last decade, worker wages in low-paying industries, such as fast food, have stagnated or declined, while productivity levels have increased. Despite stagnating or declining real wages for workers, CEO pay and business profits are up. According to a University of California, Berkeley report, the largest fast-food companies in the United States earn between $7 million and $7.4 billion each year in profits, in addition to large dividends and executive compensation ranging from $1.7 to $52 million.
No, Mr. Ellis, workers are not “indolent.” They are working harder than ever for fewer real dollars. Fast-food companies with record profits can afford to pay more; they just choose not to. This is an issue of values. An ethical businessperson increases wages when profits are up. But these businesses prefer to pocket increasing profits for themselves and shareholders while we taxpayers pick up the bill. According to NELP, with a median wage of $8.69 per hour for front-line fast-food jobs, 52 percent of fast-food workers are enrolled in, or have their families enrolled in, one or more taxpayer-funded safety net programs to make ends meet. Because of the fast-food industry’s low wages, combined with part-time hours and lack of health care benefits, families rely on the taxpayer-funded safety net: $3.9 billion per year in Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) benefits, $1 billion for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and $1.95 billion per year for Earned Income Tax Credit payments.
Mr. Ellis repeats the common fallacies that most low-wage jobs are held by teenagers and the uneducated. Again, here are the facts: According to Robert Hiltonsmith, a policy analyst at Demos, “70 percent of these fast-food workers are aged 20 or over, so they’re not teenagers, and of that 70 percent, about a third of them have college degrees. So it’s not that they don’t have skills – in many cases, the jobs aren’t there for them.” (“U.S. fast-food workers protest, demand a ‘living wage,'” Reuters, Aug. 29).
Mr. Ellis questions the choices of poor households: “According to the Census Bureau, 80 percent of poor households have air conditioning. Two-thirds have at least one DVD player and nearly 75 percent have a car or truck. 31 percent have two or more cars or trucks. With this in mind, clearly those that work in the fast food industry and who are considered to be ‘living in poverty’ have substantial means.” Again, here are a few facts. A DVD player costs $44, while taking a family of four to the movies costs $31. So, it is more economical to buy a DVD rather than take your family to the movies. An air-conditioner costs $140, but is this cost too much for “those living in poverty,” especially southerners? In the United States, with minimal government investment in mass transportation (in South Bend, there is no bus service on Sundays or holidays), a job requires a car. Unfortunately, for those earning low wages, two persons need to go to work to support a family of four. So what may seem like luxuries to a young man attending a private college are pretty basic to simple living.
Finally, Mr. Ellis concludes, “Protesting and rioting for higher wages is often done in vain, especially for a job as menial as burger flipping.” I am not sure where Mr. Ellis has read of fast-food workers “rioting.” However, I am reminded of stories of my grandfather working in the coal mines before there was a federal minimum wage. He joined the picket lines, risking his job to help unionize the coal mines and to wrest decent wages from the companies. Maybe back then, those lucky enough to afford a private college education would have called their work “menial,” but their protests were not “done in vain.” The unions brought higher wages and created the middle class.

Judith Robert is a ’77 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. She can be contacted at
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.