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Campaign Brings Focus on Changing Face of Fast Food

By Aissatou Diallo

By looking at the workers behind the counter at the McDonald’s on Linden Boulevard on a regular Sunday afternoon, one may think that only teens hold jobs in the fast-food industry. But only 18.6% of fast-food jobs are held by teens in Brooklyn right now, according to the New York State Department of Labor.

And to the patrons in East New York, the call to increase the pay rate for fast-food workers might seem ridiculous: Why should teens earn $15 an hour to flip burgers?

The shifting demographic of fast-food employees is an underlying reality in the debate to increase the federal hourly minimum wage from the current rate of $7.25. Through the efforts of the National Fast Food Forward campaign, which is working to create a living wage for all restaurant workers, the public face of fast food is changing.

Instead of teens at the fryer, the public is hearing about immigrant parents and graduates trying to pay off loans or supplement another job. But that doesn’t mean teens are any less affected by the issue.


“The growing low-wage economy is a problem that teens will inherit as they join the workforce,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change and director of Fast Food Forward. “The bulk of the job growth since the recession has been in low-wage sectors like fast food. Increasing wages in the fast-food industry will help grow the economy, which will help teen and adult workers alike.”

Low pay was the main reason Brittny (correct spelling) Sobers, 18, quit her job at McDonald’s after a few months. “I literally worked many hard hours, through rude customers, rude employees for little pay,” said the recent Benjamin Banneker Academy graduate. “It was ridiculous. It was like a legal sweatshop.”

The Fast Food Forward campaign is supported by workers’ groups and has received millions of dollars from the Service Employees International Union(SEIU)  in its goal to raise the federal minimum wage. What began in New York City eight months ago has quickly spread to cities like Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, where hundreds of fast-food workers are walking off their jobs, demanding higher wages and union recognition.

“I would [be] working now, instead of being jobless. . .but that 7.25 an hour wasn’t cuttin’ it,” said Sobers, who was saving up to pay for her senior activities.

But not all teens are siding with Sobers on the issue.


“It’s unfortunate that they’re not making enough money,” said Jacob Kessler, 18, an incoming freshman at Hunter College, “but expecting these businesses to double the salary of every single employee could actually end up hurting the fast-food chains and could cause them to lay off workers who they are currently able to hire.”

The unemployment rate for teenagers 16 through 19 is at 24.2 percent, compared to the 7.6 percent unemployment rate for adults. The median age of fast-food workers is 28, according to Westin.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to push a button,” said Ashanna McKenzie,18, who is starting her first year at Syracuse University this month. “I don’t think it (the pay) should be raised. McDonald’s is not a permanent job. People are making it into that and the payroll should not reflect that. The work you do determines the pay.”

To Fast Food Nation, the work is worth $15 an hour.

All workers – teens and adults – deserve “the right to form a union without retaliation,” said Westin.


Although fast-food workers still want better wages and union recognition, New York Communities for Change says there are no future strikes being planned currently.

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