Melvin Wharton is 31 years old. He was laid off from a $13-per-hour job a year ago, and the only work he has been able to find since has been at a Greensboro Taco Bell, where he makes $7.25 an hour—federal minimum wage, or what he calls "chump change."
Minimum wage, he says plainly, is not enough to live on.
Wharton's co-worker, Dansirae McVay, a mother of two small children who makes $120 a week, agrees.
"You have to postpone bills because you've got to budget out the money to make it through," McVay, 26, said. "Your cellphone's off for a week because you can't make that payment. For me, buying Pampers, that's $20. It's hard. The cost of living is too expensive just to be making $7.25 an hour."
Last Thursday, Wharton and McVay, along with fast-food workers across the state and the country, walked out on work in protest.
They want $15 an hour and the right to unionize in North Carolina and other places in the South without fear of retaliation.
In Raleigh, demonstrators rallied outside fast-food franchises at a McDonald's on Capital Boulevard in the morning and a KFC on New Bern Avenue in the afternoon.
The Rev. William Barber addressed a group of around 100 people at the KFC. "The fastest-growing jobs in the U.S.A. are the lowest paid," the told the crowd. "Most new jobs are in fast food. Workers are paid between $10,000 and $18,000 a year. Fast-food workers are truly the working poor."
The North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association corroborates Barber's assertion that the fast-food industry, or at least the restaurant industry, is rapidly growing, especially in this state.
"While North Carolina's unemployment rate remains one of the nation's highest, the restaurant industry has been an economic bright spot in our state by providing good-paying, reliable jobs," said Lynn Minges, NCRLA president and CEO, in a statement.
According to numbers from the NCRLA, restaurants account for 411,800 jobs in North Carolina in 2013, or 10 percent of overall employment. By the year 2023, restaurants are projected to employ 467,400; that's 13.5 percent job growth over 2013. As consumer demand for cheap, fast food remains steady, the fast-food industry is likely to account for a significant amount of this growth.
According to Larry Parker, public relations director for the N.C. Department of Commerce, 132,041 people were employed in the "limited-service restaurants industry" in 2012. Limited-service operations include fast-food restaurants as well as delis, pizza parlors and delivery places, family restaurants and takeout eateries such as sandwich shops, according to Parker. Employment in limited-service restaurants is up from 2011 by 4.8 percent.
Using numbers supplied by the NCRLA and the Department of Commerce, limited-service restaurant workers make up roughly 32 percent of restaurant workers in North Carolina overall.
Both the NCRLA and the National Restaurant Association cite numbers from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2012 Current Population Survey, a monthly survey of around 60,000 U.S. households that is a source of national labor force data, according to Division of Labor Force Statistics economist Emy Sok. The restaurant organizations say the survey makes the case that fast-food workers being paid minimum wage don't have it that bad.
The survey found that of the 75.3 million people who earn an hourly wage, 1.6 million earn $7.25 an hour. Of those, around 512,000 work in the restaurant industry.
The National Restaurant Association estimates that of the 10 million people who work in the restaurant industry, only 5 percent earn $7.25 an hour. Most of these—47 percent—are teenagers; 71 percent are under the age of 25. And 77 percent of those earning minimum wage in the restaurant industry work part-time.
Those numbers are of little comfort to people like Wharton and McVay. Both well past their teens, they say they have to beg their managers to be put on the schedule to work 40 hours a week, and at times have to settle for 25–30 hours.
"It's not constant," Wharton said. "You take what you can get. If you call out, there's no sick time. If you're sick, you have to bring back a doctor's note, which I think is totally ridiculous, because you can't afford a doctor because you don't have insurance."
Wharton and McVay said that while $15 an hour is an ideal figure, they would settle for $10.25 an hour.
"That's understandable; you can work with $10," McVay said. "It's better than $7. You can dig in your budget. Your CEO got an $85 million bonus over the years, he can give some to us. We're working. Without us, how would the company work?"
McVay touches on the overriding moral issue that is perhaps more glaring in fast food than in any other minimum-wage job in the U.S.
Wharton and McVay say they are optimistic that their visibility will help them get the wage increase they're calling for. "If enough people speak up, then I feel like it will change," McVay said.
But as the restaurant industry grows and fast-food chains continue to find people who are willing to work for peanuts, it's hard to say whether economic realities might turn in the workers' favor.
A version of this story was originally published on our Triangulator blog.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Minimum value meal."