top of page

Close to Home: Serving up a raise for fast-food workers

Martin J. Bennett

Nov 5, 2023

A new state law boost pay for fast-food workers to $20 an hour.

In a milestone for the higher wages movement, also known as the “Fight for $15,” the Legislature and governor recently approved Assembly Bill 1228 boosting pay for 550,000 California fast-food workers to $20 an hour beginning next April.

The legislation also creates a Fast Food Council comprised of employers, employees and government officials to set wages and regulate working conditions in California for fast-food chains with more than 60 locations nationwide.

AB 1228 could foreshadow a new phase of the Fight for $15 movement.

The Fight for $15 movement began in 2012 when hundreds of New York fast-food workers organized strikes to push for $15 an hour pay and higher labor standards. By 2014, fast-food strikes supported by Service Employees International Union spread to 190 cities nationwide. In California, fast-food workers have waged more than 350 strikes and filed 300 wage and health and safety complaints. Additionally, thousands of low-wage janitors, hotel, airport and health care workers have organized unions and launched strikes for higher wages.

Consequently, 12 states and 54 counties and cities enacted phased-in $15-an-hour minimum wage laws. California was the first to pass a $15 minimum wage in 2016. According to the National Employment Law Project, 26 million low-wage workers, on average, won pay increases of roughly $6,000 annually for each affected worker.

Who are fast-food workers and what do they want?

According to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, more than two-thirds of California's fast-food workers are adults aged 20 and older. Nearly 70% live in households with four or more people, and their wages contribute 40% of their family's annual income. Two-thirds of California fast-food workers are women, 8 in 10 are workers of color, and 6 in 10 Are Latino. Harvard and UC San Francisco researchers reported in 2022 that most are employed part-time, and most want more hours. The average hourly pay for a California fast-food worker is $16.21 or just $31,050 annually.

While there is a wide variation in the state given different regional living costs, according to the MIT living wage calculator, a living wage for California is more than $30 an hour for two parents, each working full-time to support two children and pay for necessities.

In addition to a living wage, California fast-food workers want stronger health and safety protections. The UC Berkeley Labor Center reported in 2021 that the pandemic hammered fast-food workers because of the difficulty maintaining social distance, shortages of masks and gloves, lack of notification when workers contracted COVID-19 and customers who refused to wear masks. One-third of fast-food workers received no paid sick leave — forcing many to work when sick. Only slightly more than 1 in 10 workers received employer-provided health insurance. Consequently, one-quarter of fast-food workers contracted the virus, and cooks had the highest increase in mortality for any occupation during the pandemic.

A 2022 UCLA Labor Center report found that fast-food workers face numerous other workplace hazards, including exposure to sewer water, smoke and excessive indoor heat. Thirty-seven percent experienced violence, such as racist slurs, physical threats, assaults and robberies. Forty-three percent reported they were injured on the job. The researchers also documented that wage theft and sexual harassment are widespread in the industry.

In addition to wages, a Fast Food Council will be able to address these working conditions and recommend changes. Experience with industrywide bargaining in Europe and Australia demonstrates that boosting wages and improving working conditions benefits employees and employers. Workers will become more productive as turnover declines, and increased retention promotes more training and acquiring new skills. Productivity is also enhanced when workers have a stronger voice on the job and do not fear employer retaliation.

Since 2018, seven states and cities nationwide have adopted labor standard boards like California’s Fast Food Council for industries such as nursing homes, agriculture, transit, and domestic work. The Fight for $15 has evolved into the Fight for $20 or more. Sustained collective action by low-wage workers and their labor allies may lead to more states replicating the California fast-food model.

Martin J. Bennett is an instructor emeritus at Santa Rosa Junior College and a consultant for UNITE HERE Local 2.

bottom of page