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'I Can Barely Afford My Children's Shoes:' My Life As A McDonald's Worker

Meet Melinda Topel, a single mother with a college degree raising four children on poverty wages and no sick days.

“Each payday I choose, do I pay the light bill or do I pay the gas bill?” said Melinda Topel, a McDonald’s worker for 10 years in various cities. “Do I pay all of my rent or do I pay some of the rent and some for the lights? Do I pay a utility or do I buy food?”

Topel has to face difficult decisions like these on a daily basis. But she isn’t alone. She’s one of about four million fast-food employees nationwide struggling to survive on low-wage work. While fast-food corporations rake in billions each year, workers are paid the minimum wage or slightly above it. In turn, workers like Topel not only struggle with bills, but have to rely on public assistance. And like most fast-food workers, although she works full-time, Topel doesn’t receive any kind of benefits or paid sick days.

That’s why Topel and other fast-food workers across the country are fighting for a $15 per hour wage and a union.

“We deserve to go to work everyday and pay our bills like everyone else,” she said. “And our kids deserve new shoes or school supplies.… The CEOs of these multi-billion-dollar companies are putting the profits in their pockets — and we made them those profits… and it shouldn’t be like that.”

Topel’s story, including her efforts to get ahead by putting herself through school as a single mother, shows why life at the bottom of the economic ladder is so hard for people who’ve found themselves facing hardships. But people like Topel are realizing that they’re not alone. This weekend in Washington, DC, hundreds of people will take part in a “Rising Voices for a New Economy” conference and congressional lobbying on Monday, to confront inequality in America.

Why McDonald’s?

Before Topel joined the fight last fall, she saw little hope in her decade-long struggle to make ends meet. She started working at McDonald’s in 2004, when she had no other option. Topel had just gotten a divorce and had to raise four children. Her situation isn’t uncommon, as women make up three-quarters of the low-wage workforce, and 78 percent of fast-food workers are the main earners in their family. She knew she had to take the first job she could get.

“I still had bills that needed to be paid,” Topel said. “And McDonald’s was there.”

Topel started her job making $8 an hour, working 40 hours each week. Soon after, she decided to go to college in hopes of eventually landing better employment. “I worked full-time, went to school full-time and raised four kids full-time,” she said, adding that she got a degree in medical billing and coding in 2006 and another in computer applications in 2012.

But like half a million people across the country with college degrees who are stuck in minimum-wage jobs, Topel still can’t find work in her field. “I still apply. I go on the computer on a daily basis,” she said. “The way the economy is now, I haven’t been able to find new employment.”

In the meantime, Topel has continued to work at McDonald’s, on and off, for the past 10 years. She recently started work in a store in Kansas City, MO, after moving from a different location in the city. She now makes $7.50 an hour, Missouri’s minimum wage, and her hours have been cut from 40 to 33 per week. Her wage is even less than the median fast-food worker wage, which is $8.94 an hour. Each year, she takes home less than the average annual salary for full-time fast-food workers: $19,000 before taxes—a fraction of the median household income in Kansas City, which is about $45,000.