At some point during the past year, you may have popped into your favorite fast food joint only to find that you couldn’t get your Big Mac or Finger Lickin’ Good Big Bucket because the people who work at the place were on strike.
If you wondered why — shouldn’t they just be grateful to have a job in today’s tough economy — a PBS documentary on one New York fast food employee may have some answers for you.
Shenita Simon is 25 years old and holds a position of responsibility at a Brooklyn Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. She is a shift supervisor, working full time, in charge of other employees and required to help out in any area of the restaurant where she’s needed, whether it’s operating the cash register and taking customer orders or actually frying the food.
She is also the breadwinner in a household of seven. He husband was recently laid off from his job. Their three children as well as Simon’s mother and brother all live under the same roof.
Simon (pictured) earns a wage of $8 per hour. After taxes, she takes home about $270 per week. The federally recognized poverty line for a family of seven is $35,000 per year. Simon’s pay would be the equivalent of about half that, or a somewhat less.
A recent study showed that 52 percent of fast food workers must rely on some form of public assistance just to make ends meet, barely. In other words, the government subsidizes the fast food industry’s labor costs — to the tune of $7 billion per year.
The 10 largest fast food companies are responsible for more than half of that total, though those same 10 corporations made a total of $7.4 billion in 2012 profits and paid out $7.7 billion to shareholders.
Among the most voracious recipients of the government subsidies, McDonald’s led the way with its employees needing $1.2 billion in public aid.
Yum! Brands comes next. The parent company of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Simon’s employer, Kentucky Fried Chicken, caused the government to pay out $648 million to its employees.
That’s something to remember next time you bite into a delicious Whopper. The government is paying for your privilege of eating it.
Striking fast food workers this year want the fast food chains to raise their basic wage to $15 per hour.
Simon is also part of the 87 percent of the fast food workforce who receive no benefits from their employer, another way the fast food chains pinch pennies on labor costs..
“No vacation, no benefits, no sick days, no personal days. That's luxury. That's unheard of now,” she told PBS.
Simon allowed PBS to shadow her, recording her expenses for a week. They found her biggest expense was food, which on one $53.57 trip to the grocery store included five boxes of macaroni and cheese, and three $5 bags of 99-cent-per-pound chicken. She also must pay $6 to buy special milk for her daughter who is allergic to dairy.
Her family receives about $200 per month from the government’s WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, but they no longer receive food stamps. While PBS cameras followed her, Simon spent five hours waiting in line on her day off to reapply.
She spent $45.35 on toiletries for the whole family and about $40 on baby supplies while PBS tracked her. That left three bucks and change in her bank account.
To critics who say that she should be happy to just have a job, Simon replies, “it's easy looking from outside in and saying, oh, yes, with that money, I will be able to build mountains. But let me see you survive. I want to see anyone. I challenge you, do it.”
SOURCES: PBS, CNN News Wire, Forbes