Fast Food Workers: Not Just Kids Flipping Burgers

Fast Food Workers: Not Just Kids Flipping Burgers

Fast Food Workers: Not Just Kids Flipping Burgers
May 28, 2015

Flavia Cabral is a 53-year-old mother of two from the Bronx who earns just $8.75 per hour at McDonald’s, and has to work two full-time jobs to make ends meet. Her choice between watching her daughters grow up or working those extra hours in the hopes of saving for their education shocks our collective conscience to its core.

Rebecca Cornick is a 60-year-old single mother and grandmother of five from East New York who works at Wendy’s. Though she is not far from retirement age, there are no golden years in her future, as she works every day making barely enough to get by.

These workers are not teenagers trying to make a few extra bucks after school or saving up to go on vacation during spring break. Fast food workers are adults, mostly women, and many with children, who need this job to support their families.

I hear stories like Flavia and Rebecca’s each and every day, as working families question why they’ve been left behind by an economic system that’s stacked in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected. As the New York City public advocate, it is my job to fight for the priorities of everyday New Yorkers, and that’s why I enthusiastically supported Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s historic decision to instruct the state labor commissioner to impanel a wage board and address the plight of fast food workers.

The decision, rightfully, put New York center stage in a national debate about income inequality.

From our cities to our suburbs to the most rural regions of the state, fast food workers are struggling to get by. Their story is one of hard work and poverty that flies in the face of the American dream, where perseverance is supposed to be rewarded by advancement and a better life for our families.

While there is much debate about the cure for our affordability crisis, we know that wage stagnation is one of its prime causes. Millions of workers struggle every day in poverty, unable to pay their rent, feed their families and have a little something left over to spend as consumers. For them, there is no way out and no way up, as long as wages remain flat.

As the governor’s wage board begins its review and recommendation process, it is important that we debunk some myths about fast food workers.

In New York, 87 percent of fast food workers are over 18 years old, 72 percent are over 21, and the greatest percentage of fast food workers (21 percent) are between 25 and 34. Seventy-six percent have a high school degree or higher, with nearly half (47 percent) having some form of college education. One-third of all fast food workers over the age of 20 are raising at least one child, and over two-thirds are the main wage earners for their families. This is a far cry from the image of teens flipping burgers that opponents would have you call to mind.

The real workers in these fast food restaurants are mothers supporting their families like Flavia and Rebecca. Nationwide, over 70 percent of frontline fast food workers are women, and they are a majority of fast food workers in New York.

If you’re a fast food worker living in New York City, almost 10 percent of your annual average wages are eaten up by the cost of a monthly MetroCard. When you factor in other living expenses, like rent, food and clothes, it’s no wonder that 60 percent of fast food workers statewide are in families receiving public assistance, at an annual cost to New York taxpayers of $700 million.

Even more obscene is the fact that taxpayers are financing public assistance to subsidize the poverty wages of an industry that took in $551 billion in global revenues last year.

Thanks to Cuomo’s historic wage board action, we have it within our means to right a wrong that has gone on for far too long.

The state that gave birth to the women’s rights movement is the ideal place to take a stand against the growing wage gap, and the fight for $15 is the way to do it. It is past time for Flavia, Rebecca and hundreds of thousands of fast food workers to be paid the wages they deserve.


Letitia James is the public advocate for New York City.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that Flavia Cabral is from Brooklyn. She is from the Bronx 

Letitia James
is the New York City public advocate.