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More Than Teenagers Toasting Buns: The Changing Demographics of Fast-Food Workers

The recent strikes show just how untenable the current makeup of the fast-food labor force really is.
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I still have a slight scar on my left hand from working at McDonald's.

My primary duty was toasting the buns. Big Mac buns, Quarter Pounder buns, McChicken buns—I toasted them all. Sometimes I got to grill the meat and assemble the burgers, but my superiors didn't schedule me for those shifts very often. One day I accidentally and absent-mindedly grazed a knuckle against a hot surface of the toaster, burning off a dime-sized area of flesh. It stung for days, as though someone were applying a fresh paper cut to the wound every hour.

Besides sampling the odd McNugget or handful of McFlurry Oreo crumble when a manager wasn't around, I strongly disliked the job. It was boring and monotonous and I didn't care.

This was in Canada during the late '90s. I was 16 years old, earning $5.41/hour (a full cent above minimum wage) while living at my parents' house and attending high school. I had no credit-card debt, no student loans, and no kids of my own to support. After about a year and a half of turning buns golden brown and glancing at the punch clock every four minutes or so, I hung up my apron for good. I eventually landed a janitor position at a nearby discount department store, thus ending my career in the fast-food industry for the foreseeable future.

If the industry used to be mainly comprised of uneducated teenagers in search of job experience and weekend spending money, it isn't any more.

However typical my short-lived, entry-level employment may have been at one point in history, it certainly isn't typical for the estimated 2.3 million people employed at 10 of America's largest fast-food establishments today.

For example, according to a report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, only 30 percent of the nation's fast-food labor force currently falls into the 16-19 age range, while 31 percent are 20-24 and the rest are 25 and older. More than a quarter of these workers are raising at least one child. Nearly 85 percent of non-teenage employees have already earned their high-school diploma, while approximately one-third have at least some college education.

Then there's the low pay. With the federal minimum wage set at $7.25/hour, Mother Jonesreports that the median hourly wage for fast-food workers presently sits at $8.94/hour, or $18,595/year when working full-time. While that's not a terrible number for a childless person who lives in a relatively inexpensive part of the country and doesn't mind eating peanut butter sandwiches for dinner semi-regularly, it's not always enough.

Indeed, a recent University of California-Berkeley study (which, it should be noted, was funded by Fast Food Forward, a coalition of workers and activists campaigning for more benefits and higher wages) found that 52 percent of fast-food workers nationwide—more than half—require some sort of government aid, costing taxpayers nearly $7 billion annually. That's a statistic nobody should feel good about.

And it's not like the burger-pizza-chicken-taco industry is struggling, either. According to research from the National Employment Law Project, in 2012 seven of the country's largest publicly traded fast-food companies—McDonald's, Yum! Brands (Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC), Burger King, Wendy's, Dunkin' Donuts, Sonic, and Domino's— earned a combined profit of $7.44 billion, paid their top executives a total of $52.7 million, and distributed $7.7 billion in dividends and stock buybacks.

To highlight the income gap between low-level employees and top-level executives, last year Bloombergcalculated that a 44-year-old Chicago man named Tyree Johnson, who's worked at McDonald's for two decades yet still receives only $8.25/hour (Illinois' minimum), would require "more than a century on the clock" to earn the $8.75 million former CEO Jim Skinner earned in 2011 alone. Another report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows that had the federal minimum wage kept pace with economic growth since 1968—the year that minimum wage peaked in actual purchasing power when adjusted for inflation—the present-day minimum wage should be hovering around $16.50.

Due to this concoction of woe, thousands of fast-food workers went on strike earlier this month in over 100 cities across the country, demanding that the federal government raise the minimum wage to $15/hour. A similar protest occurred almost exactly a year ago in New York City, where the number of fast-food jobs has increased by more than 50 percent since 2000. TheNew York Times called it the "biggest wave of job actions in the history of America’s fast-food industry."

Whatever your stance on how politicians, corporate leaders, and union organizers should respond to this growing unrest, it's pretty clear that the fast-food labor force is changing. If the industry used to be mainly comprised of uneducated teenagers in search of job experience and weekend spending money, it isn't any more. While familiar left- and right-wing viewpoints slug it out and experts disagree on how a minimum-wage hike would affect both the fast-food industry and national economy as a whole, only the comfortably calloused would argue that things are perfectly fine as they are.