Fast-Food CEOs Making 1,200 Times Workers’ Wages Have No Idea What Their Greed Does To Employees

Three McDonald's workers reveal how they survive, while fighting for higher wages and a union.

Photo Credit: Stand Up KC

A grand canyon of inequality exists between fast food CEOs and the workers who make their corporate and personal fortunes. In the past decade, fast-food CEOs’ wages have increased more than 400 percent, while workers wages increased 0.3 percent, according to a new report by Demos.

The result is that the CEO-to-worker pay ratio is now 1,200-to-one, with the average fast food CEO salary at $23.8 million in 2013 and the average worker salary at $19,000. This ratio is more than quadruple what’s typically found in the nation’s economy, which continues on its path of increasing economic disparity.

Another new report by the National Employment Law Project found that there are now 1.85 million more low-wage jobs than before the Great Recession, but 2 million fewer jobs in mid- and high-wage industries, confirming the slide down the economic ladder.  

While we can comprehend the big picture behind these figures, it is another thing to see what this inequality looks like for people stuck in low-wage jobs. Below are the experiences of three McDonalds workers who are trying to survive, while fighting for higher wages and a union.

Marie Sanders

When she was 17, Marie Sanders took a job at McDonald’s in Kansas City, MO, making $7.25 an hour, because she needed to start covering her own expenses. Soon after, she decided to make a budget to account for these expenses and realized something was off: the managers were clocking her out for breaks she didn’t take—which is wage theft.

“I was 17 years old and I had problems at home, so I needed to budget my money in order to pay my expenses,” Marie said. “I just stumbled upon it. I would ask my manager for printouts of my time. And that’s when I had noticed that I had been clocked out for days that I did not take breaks. And it would be hour-breaks at that.”

Marie said she was never paid back for this wage theft, and after a few weeks, managers stopped giving her printouts all together, saying she’d get them later. But later never came. While these problems didn’t follow her when she was transferred to another McDonald’s, the difficulties with low wages did not go away.

Marie, who’s now 20, makes $7.75 an hour. Though she works full-time, it’s still nearly impossible for her and her nine-month-old daughter to survive on the $900 or so she brings home each month. Her rent is $495 each month. She needs to pay for utilities as well as childcare, which is $120 every other week. She receives $122 worth of food stamps each month from the government, which mostly goes to baby formula costing $20 a can. Marie said she goes hungry to save money.

“I feel like if I eat, I won't be able to pay my electric bill,” she said. “Or if I eat, I won’t be able to make rent. Or if I eat, my daughter won’t be able to get those new sneakers she needs.… I have to sacrifice myself completely.”

Marie had to sacrifice even when she was pregnant, as she worked until she was nine months and three weeks. During that period, she received no accommodations from her employer. “It was as if I wasn’t pregnant at all,” Marie said. “I was in the grill, in the heat.… I held about every position there.”

She started her six weeks of maternity leave five days before her daughter was born. “I didn’t have any other choice,” Marie said. “I needed the money. I needed to prepare for my baby.”

After she returned to work, Marie’s co-worker told her about Stand Up KC, a coalition of fast-food and retail workers in Kansas City, organizing the fight for $15 an hour and a union. Before then, she didn’t realize how unfair her working conditions were. Marie has participated in picket lines and tries to help organize other workers.

“I had been struggling,” Marie said. “Like I realized it, but it was like, it is what it is, it’s not going to change. But that was the wrong mindset because we can make a change. Because they’re not going to give it to us because that’s why we have to fight for it.… We have the right not to live impoverished lives for the rest of our lives, especially when fast-food businesses make billions of dollars a year.”

Marie said if she were paid $15 an hour, she would be able to accomplish many more goals. She hopes to one day be a neo-natal nurse practitioner.

“I’d be able to save to go to school,” she said. “I’d be able to get my daughter everything she needs and plenty of things that she wants. I’d be able to eat. I’d be able to pay my bills on time in full. I’d be able to pay my rent on time in full. I’d be able to do so many things that right now are just a dream.”

Connie Ogletree

When Connie Ogletree’s husband passed away, she knew she would have to go back to work to survive. After moving in with her sister, Connie, 55, took a job at a McDonald’s in Atlanta, GA, two years ago, making $7.25.

Connie is also a full-time student at Atlanta Metropolitan College, where she hopes to get a bachelor’s degree in secretarial science. While she hoped that McDonald’s would give her a minimum of 20 hours each week, she only gets scheduled for 10-12 hours. Her managers effectively ignore her request for more hours by continuously saying they’ll look into it. But even her short shift isn’t guaranteed.

“They may schedule you for six, seven or eight hours,” she said, “but if the store isn’t doing well, they will send you home early or make you take two unpaid breaks.”

Her poverty wage and few hours make getting through each month a struggle. She relies on public assistance for some of her food and healthcare.

“From the middle to the end of the month, there will literally be no money in this house except to get me back and forth to work,” she said.

Connie lives a 30-minute drive to work — or two buses and a train ride if she wants to take public transportation from her home in South Atlanta to the well-to-do neighborhood where she works in the northern part of the city. There, she said, she is lucky that some customers leave her tips for her service. She said her customers treat her better than her employers.

“McDonald’s is generally not a place where you would go and leave the person that served you a tip. I receive a lot of tips on my job,” she said. “Even though it’s a fast-food job — when I was growing up, my mother said, ‘If you’re going to pick up garbage, be the best garbage picker-upper that they have.’ So I try to be the best customer service person behind the counter as I can. So I get a lot of tips on my job, and sometimes that tip money is my gas money. I don’t depend on it, but when I get it, I’m grateful for it. Because sometimes it comes in just when I needed it.”

The first time a customer left his change on the counter in the form of a tip, Connie’s managers claimed later that day that her drawer was short, and made her pay back the same amount as the tip.

“I know I didn’t make an error, so I took it as they didn’t want me to have that tip,” Connie said. “My drawer has never come up short, except for that one time. I cried so bad that day.”

Connie said she doesn’t conceal the tips she receives now, but instead makes the process more transparent.

“I don’t hide it,” she said. “I take it and put in my pocket, and look at them, so they know that I know they see what’s going on and there’s nothing missing from the drawer.”

Connie joined the Fight for 15 in the beginning of the year after meeting with organizers at a Moral Monday protest rally her friend asked her to attend.

“I got a lot of energy from the people in the struggle, and it made me realize how much this thing is really needed in this country,” she said, adding that she’s participated in actions at various fast-food restaurants in the past few months. 

Connie said if she were paid $15 an hour, she would be able to take pleasure in her earnings, instead of merely struggling to get by.

“I want to be able to enjoy the money I make sometimes, instead of just every dime has to go into a bill or into the gas tank,” she said.

Lizbeth Caceres

Born in Nicaragua, Lizbeth Caceres, 46, came to the U.S. for the American Dream. But she soon learned that “the dream — it’s not easy, and you have to fight and struggle in order to improve your position.” Lizbeth, who worked for years at Wendy’s and Walmart in the past, took her job at a McDonald’s in the Pentagon after she moved to Arlington, VA, and her friend informed her of the open position.

Lizbeth has been there since last January, and currently makes $8.43 an hour, working 40 hours a week. She lives in a house with her mother, father, three siblings and two children. She too has to make tough decisions about what bills and necessities to pay for.

“I’m a single mother, I’m raising my children on my own,” Lizbeth told a translator in an interview with AlterNet. “And it’s really hard. I’ve been working full-time, but I struggle to afford, in some cases, the basics.”

On top of McDonald’s not fully compensating and appreciating its workers, Lizbeth said she finds it hypocritical that she makes such low wages while working for the government of the country she moved to in order to have a better life.

“It is a bit ironic,” she said. “I’m working in a federal building. Some direct government employees who are doing the same thing that I am cooking and cleaning are earning higher wages than I am. But because I work for a contractor, I find myself in this position where I have to fight to receive a little bit more of a higher wage or financial benefits.”

In addition to the low wages, Lizbeth said she feels the mangers believe they are superior to workers, and she often suffers from verbal and emotional abuse.

“I’m one of only two people that work the grill,” she said. “Everybody is supposed to rotate shifts. But for me, I have to do double the work because there’s only two people working the grill, and I feel like that’s a form of discrimination.”

Working the grill is hard, Lizbeth said. She works two grills, cooking red meat on one and chicken on the other, and it’s constantly hot and she frequently gets burned.

“The managers tell us we’re a team,” she said. “They keep saying we’re going to train someone else to work the grill and they never do. I keep being told there’s going to be rotation, but there never is.”

Since the beginning of the year, Lizbeth has been organizing with Good Jobs Nation, an organization fighting for better wages for federal workers, and has been on strike. She is one of the workers who will begin receiving $10.10 next January, after Obama signed an executive order to raise the wage for federal contractors.

But, she said, that raise still won’t be enough. She believes she deserves at least $13 an hour and benefits like healthcare and paid sick days. She would use the money to help her family and save for retirement.

“I’d like to make an appeal to the President, because he can change what goes on in federal buildings,” she said. “I want him to know that my coworkers and I work really hard and we deserve better working conditions, and benefits. I’d like to make an appeal to his conscience, so he knows that we deserve.”

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet. 

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