How Fast Food Workers Are Finally Getting $15 an Hour

Fast food companies hope wage hikes will attract workers despite the industry's particularly unsafe and exploitative workplaces.
How Fast Food Workers Are Finally Getting $15 an Hour
On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

On Monday, Chipotle announced it would be raising its wages to $15 per hour and would institute a referral bonus to attract 20,000 new workers ahead of its peak season and expansion plans.

Many, including Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol, are thinking of the inability to hire workers at low-wages as evidence of a labor shortage or unusually tight labor market. In an interview with CNBC, Niccol said the goal was to convey that a job with Chipotle "can lead to a meaningful career" but it's unlikely that will be enough. Other restaurant chain owners and owners of companies who pay low wages have simply blamed the COVID-19 stimulus’ slightly-better-than-normal unemployment benefits as a reason people don’t want to work, seemingly failing to realize that they are openly advertising that they don’t pay enough for people to survive.


In recent weeks, fast food workers have been protesting their low wages, with Fight for $15 strikes planned at McDonald’s and a series of fast food restaurants seemingly unable to stay open because of worker walkouts.

Just last week, New York City announced Chipotle owed its New York City workers $150 million in backpay for 599,693 labor law violations related to illegal scheduling practices. The company could also be on the hook for another $300 million in civil penalties as each violation is subject to a $500 penalty. 

It’s not a stretch to say that Chipotle views health codes and labor laws as obstacles that undermine the company's profits, instead of regulations that protect workers and their well-being. It has violated child labor laws in Massachusetts, refused to follow CDC guidelines during the ongoing pandemic, refused to close stores with rat infestations until managers were bitten, and has had a long history of food-safety incidents. 

As labor reporter Alex Press writes of the company’s violations, the company slogan may be "food with integrity" but "its business model is about dishonesty, disrespect, and downright endangerment of workers.”


In response to unsafe working conditions that consistently disregarded the health and safety of workers, Chipotle staged a series of protests and walkouts in the city that aimed to put pressure on the company to stop violating labor laws so flagrantly. Chipotle’s wage increase can be understood as an attempt to distract from its fines and these broader stories, but it’s also the story of workers demanding fair compensation.

One tweet by Devita Davison, director at Food Lab Detroit, features signs at a few fast food restaurants declaring they are closed for a variety of reasons. A Hardee's declares it is closed because "NO STAFF" but is hiring and offers a number to call. At one Wendy's, the sign proudly declares "We All Quiet!! Closed!!" At a Chipotle, a longer sign says that employees are "overworked, understaffed, underpaid, and underappreciated" so nearly all management and crew have walked out.

Countless examples are offered by hordes of people of restaurants they’ve seen where the same thing has happened across the country. In North Carolina, one sign asks customers to "please be patient with the staff that did show up" because "no one wants to work anymore." Another post shows a Taco Bell kiosk taped over with a sign reading "We are temporarily closed because people do not show up for the job they signed up for." Another picture from someone in Las Vegas features a sign that also asks for patience "with the staff that did show up" but says no one wants to work anymore because "there is a demon in the fridge."


Republicans and business lobbies may have settled on the talking point that unemployment benefits were too generous and have made people unwilling to work, but in light of a wave of worker walkouts and attempts to increase wages across the fast food industry failing to attract workers, this doesn’t exactly seem to be true.

Last week, we learned the U.S. economy gained only 266,000 jobs in April compared to the 770,000 jobs gained in March. A debate emerged over whether the problem was that the unemployment payments and stimulus checks discouraged people from working low-wage jobs or that these firms were not paying workers adequately enough to begin with.

As Heather Long writes for The Washington Post, however, the debate is too narrow. "At the most basic level, people are still hesitant to return to work until they are fully vaccinated and their children are back in school and day care full time," she writes. Long goes on to add, however, that there's growing evidence "that a lot of people want to do something different with their lives than they did before the pandemic."

One worker tells her "we are not making enough money to make it worth it to go back to these jobs that are difficult and dirty and usually thankless. You're getting yelled at and disrespected all day." That worker and her husband are now selling their home, buying a van, and planning to travel across the country with their kids to home-school them and spend more time together. 

For many, work sucks. Far too many people have been far too desperate to do anything that threatens their income. The pandemic has dislodged that a bit. Worker strikes and walkouts of currently employed workers are intimately connected to previously employed workers refusing to return to poor working conditions. Corporations can hike their wages as much as they want, but it’s too late to go back to normal as workers get the chance to collectively organize actions or to individually reflect on their lives and careers.