How low can McDonald's go to disrespect its workers?

Michele Simon, JD, MPH

It seems both ironic and fitting that while most Americans are obsessed with food for the Thanksgiving holiday, this week also marks International Food Workers Week, organized by the Food Chain Workers Alliance. While many large restaurant chains and other sectors of the food industry bear responsibility for mistreating their workers, recently, McDonald’s has engaged in a series of jaw-dropping and idiotic communications with its workforce. Each one is a painful reminder of how impossible it is to live on fast-food wages. For example:

- In July, McDonald’s shared a budget planning guide that included a line-item for a second job, which would sadly be needed on the typical hourly wage of $8.25 (compared to the CEO’s annual salary of $8.75 million). But as CNN demonstrated, McDonald’s attempt to help its workers with a sample budget was way out of touch with the realities they face. (Like paying for such luxuries as heat, which McDonald’s budgeted at zero.)

- Last month, a representative from the corporation’s phone helpline dubbed “McResource” told a worker in Chicago that she “definitely should be able to qualify for both food stamps and heating assistance" and pointed her to other local resources such as food pantries. A corporate spokesperson said the helpline was a “confidential service.”

- Then just last week McDonald’s got caught once again giving workers not just unhelpful financial advice, but also inane and insulting “tips.” To stretch their food dollars, hungry workers were told that “breaking food into pieces often results in eating less and still feeling full.” Over-shopped? Just get refunds on any unopened holiday purchases. Feeling stressed out? McDonald’s has it covered: Just "quit complaining” since “stress hormone levels rise by 15 percent after ten minutes of complaining." And if that doesn’t work, taking “at least two vacations a year can cut heart attack risk by 50 percent." (I wonder where CEO Don Thompson vacations.)

While it’s easy to make fun of these incredibly stupid and insensitive corporate missteps, for most of McDonald’s 700,000 workers (four million in the fast-food industry), it’s no laughing matter; instead, it’s a reality they live every single day.

A staggering 20 million people in the U.S. alone work in the food system, with almost one-third of them getting paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour or the “tipped minimum wage” of $2.13 per hour in restaurants. (Yes, you read that right: 2 dollars and 13 cents.) As a result, food workers are more likely to rely on food stamps to make ends meet, among other indignities.

As I described in my recent report about McDonald’s charity (or lack thereof) with Corporate Accountability International and Anna Lappé's Small Planet Institute, the fast-food corporation consistently obstructs policy efforts to raise the minimum wage. For example, McDonald’s is a member of the National Restaurant Association, which spent close to $4 million in campaign donations and lobbying in 2012 and staunchly opposes raising the minimum wage.

According to Bloomberg, in the wake of national protests by workers for higher wages and paid sick days, McDonald’s “helped pay for lobbying against minimum-wage increases and sought to quash the kind of unionization efforts that erupted recently on the streets of Chicago and New York.” It may be cheaper to put up a website and staff a helpline, but that won’t help workers.

Making matters worse, a recent study showed that 52 percent of the families of fast-food workers need to rely on public assistance programs, costing taxpayers nearly $7 billion a year. Moreover, a related report from the National Employment Law Project found that McDonald’s topped the list of fast-food corporations whose workers rely on government programs, which essentially subsidize the industry’s low wages. As Forbes put it, McDonald’s costs “the taxpayer $1.2 billion annually in public assistance programs for their low-paid workers.”

For my report, “Clowning Around with Charity,” I closely examined McDonald’s claims of giving generously, but found that in contrast, the corporation donates relatively little, even to its namesake cause, the Ronald McDonald House Charities. Given how badly the corporation treats its workers, McDonald’s stinginess should come as no surprise. But before giving away any of its billions of dollars in annual profits, McDonald’s should first pay its workers a living wage.

Joann Lo, executive director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, told me she is “disgusted by the hypocrisy of multinational corporations like McDonald’s that pay minimum wage to their employees but then tout how they give back to the ‘community’ through donations and sponsorships.” She added: “The best way that McDonald’s can give back to the community is to pay its employees a living wage.”

Now is a good time to add your voice to this growing chorus. It’s not enough to just not eat at McDonald’s, or to ask McDonald’s to serve healthier food, or even to try and get the fast-food giant to stop marketing to children. Everyone in the food movement (and everyone else too) has a responsibility to ensure our fellow human beings are treated with the respect they deserve, starting with being paid enough money to live on. That shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Here are few ways to support International Food Workers Week:

Additional Resources:

- Food Chain Workers Alliance
- Restaurant Opportunities Center United
- Low Pay is Not OK
- Fast Food Forward

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