'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.

Photo Credit: Shannon Garth-Rhodes

“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.

What Inequality Looks Like

Ultimately, Topel brings in about $850 each month, which isn’t enough to cover all of her family’s basic needs. Her rent for her three-bedroom house is $500. She constantly has friends live with her to help out on the bills. Still, each payday comes with complicated choices because there’s often no way to afford all her bills and pay for life’s expenses.

“Me and my kids have had to cook dinner on the grill on a daily basis because I haven’t had any electricity,” she said.

Currently, all of Topel’s utilities are turned on because, she said, it’s tax season. She was also finally able to pay off the rent she owed her landlord.

“Fast-food workers, we live for our tax returns,” she said. “We’re able to pay off some stuff and get caught up on stuff we got behind on throughout the year.”

But once Topel gets caught up, life essentials can easily send her behind. With poverty wages, any seemingly small miscellaneous expense makes getting ahead nearly impossible. The constant insecurity is a horrible way to live, she said.

“You just pray that your kids don’t need shoes or that there’s an agency out there that helps with clothes and shoes that will have something for your kids that fit,” Topel said. “My 16-year-old — he just sprouted up. So, I had to go buy him some pants to be able to go to school. Even though I go to the thrift store, you’re still spending $4-$5 for a pair of pants. So to buy him two or three pairs, that’s like $15-$20. That could have been gas to get me to work for two or three days.”

These hardships force Topel and other fast-food workers to turn to public assistance. Fifty-two percent of fast-food workers receive these federal benefits, costing taxpayers $7 billion each year. But even though Topel uses food stamps, she still has to spend additional money on food and carefully budget to get through the end of the month when she runs low on food.

“I wait to go to work to eat so I know there’s enough food for my kids,” she said. “And there are times when I’ve gone to bed without eating at all, just to make sure the kids eat.”

In addition to receiving government assistance for food, she also receives Medicaid, the government healthcare program for low-income people, as McDonald’s doesn’t provide her with any sort of benefits. The corporation also doesn’t provide any paid sick days.

“I’ve gone to work with 102 temperature,” Topel said. “I’ve gone to work where I can’t keep anything down. Just because I can’t afford to miss one day of work — that could be a utility bill, that could be a payment on your rent.”

Once, when Topel had to take her son to the emergency room, she was suspended for two days — her manager’s punishment because she was unable to find someone to cover Topel's shift, even though Topel gave her an eight-hour notice. Policy requires workers to call out at least two hours before their shift.

“But her being the manager — if she tells you not to work, you don’t work,” Topel said.

The Realities of Low-Wage Work

While the reality of surviving on low wages is difficult enough, the general public’s perception about who actually works at McDonald’s may be even worse. Common misconceptions include that fast-food workers are young and have no one to support.

“A lot of people think that McDonald’s workers or fast-food workers are teenagers and high school kids just trying to get their first job when it’s not,” said Topel, who is 42.

In fact, 70 percent of fast-food workers are not teenagers, and more than a quarter are raising children.

Another common misconception is that fast-food workers lack skills because they partake in so-called unskilled labor.

“You get customers who think you’re settling for a McDonald’s job, or you don’t have any type of common sense because you work at McDonald’s,” she said. “They think they can talk to you any kind of way because you must be dumb because you’re working at McDonald’s, which is not the case. A lot of people work at McDonald’s who have college degrees, but because of the economy, we’re just not able to find active employment within those degrees. But we still have to raise our children and pay our bills.”

While Melinda Topel, and the hundreds of thousands like her, struggle to pay their bills, CEOs of these low-paying corporations pay themselves millions. A new report by Demos found that the average fast food CEO salary was $23.8 million in 2013. This makes the CEO-to-worker pay ratio 1,200 to one, which is more than quadruple the ratio in the nation’s overall economy. How did this happen? In the past decade, fast-food CEOs’ wages have increased more than 400 percent, while worker wages increased 0.3 percent.

Workers like Topel have had enough with the disparity. In November, Topel found some hope in a way out of her struggles and the ability to voice her story when her co-worker told her about Stand Up KC, a coalition of fast-food and retail workers in Kansas City. Stand Up KC partners with affiliates of the national Fight for 15 campaign to raise fast-food workers’ wages to $15 an hour and unionize. As soon as she learned more about it, Topel was in. Fed up with not making a living wage, she participated in three strikes and continues to reach out to workers in her store and those in other fast-food restaurants.

“I’m talking to more and more workers everyday, explaining that what these corporations are doing to us is not right,” she said. “I just want people to understand that the reason we’re fighting for $15 and a union is because we deserve to earn a livable wage.” 

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Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet.