'I can't live off that': Metro-east fast food workers join walkout over minimum wage

News-DemocratJuly 30, 2013 

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Some metro-east fast-food workers walked off the job Tuesday to demand more pay.

They joined others in St. Louis and similar public demonstrations Tuesday in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Mo., and Flint, Mich., to push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Most of the employees at the McDonald's at 588 N. 24th St. in East St. Louis are paid $8.25 an hour, the current minimum wage in Illinois.

"We deserve $15 an hour," said 24-year-old Nicole Williams, a cashier at the East St. Louis McDonald's. "I feel like that we need this and we deserve this."

Williams and her fellow employees walked out of the fast-food restaurant Tuesday morning to protest their wages in front of their employer's building while one co-worker remained inside. Williams said the protest lasted about a half hour and then she and her co-workers traveled across the river to participate in a similar public protest in downtown St. Louis. Workers from McDonald's and other fast-food restaurants gathered at Kiener Plaza Tuesday afternoon for a larger demonstration.

Andre Houston, a 24-year-old crew manager at the East St. Louis McDonald's, also walked off the job. He has worked there for the past four years. But as a college student who lives on his own, he said he struggles to support himself on $8.50 an hour.

"I deserve more," Houston said. "I have been a crew manager and just got a quarter (an hour) raise. I'm in school, and I can't live off that."

The movement has not reached all area minimum wage earners. Gary Peck said he has talked with the 315 employees he employs at his six metro-east McDonald's restaurants and said there has not been any debate over their pay.

"They seem to be happy, and we are doing what we can to take good care of them," Peck said. "I haven't heard any rumors or protests of discontent. They seem to be pretty satisfied with that."

Peck said that aside from managers and supervisors, most of the jobs at his restaurants are not meant to sustain someone through their lives and raise a family.

"It is not a job that provides someone with a salary for 30 or 40 years and then retire," he said. "It has never been designed that way. We take entry-level employees with virtually no skill set whatsoever and we train them in house to be a productive member of society. We give them a good work ethic and flexible hours to give income to individuals."

But Houston and Williams said better jobs are difficult to find.

"I live on my own and have a 2-year-old," Williams said. "I live paycheck to paycheck, and I'm trying to pay my bills."

Houston said, "There are people who don't understand what we go through as workers."

Economist Elise Gould said minimum-wage jobs are supporting more families who are struggling to afford the cost of living. As the director of health policy research for the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., Gould said the recent recession and still high unemployment has exacerbated the problem.

"They are not just some teenager trying to get some spending money," Gould said. "These are people who are trying to pay the rent."

The Economic Policy Institute has an online calculator,www.epi.org/resources/budget,that can provide the current cost of living in the metro-east and other areas across the country. According to the Family Online Calculator, a two-parent household supporting three children in the metro-east generate an average total of $84,871 in expenses, which includes housing, food, child care, transportation, health care and taxes. For a single parent of three, the annual cost is $81,045 in the metro-east.

"When you compare those budgets to how much one or two full-time minimum wage workers are making, they can't possibly make ends meet to meet the needs of their family," Gould said.

But the Illinois Chamber of Commerce's leader argues that raising the already high minimum wage in Illinois will hurt employers, especially small businesses.

"It's the small business entrepreneurs who make up the bulk of employment in this country that are most adversely affected by minimum wage requirements because they are not rolling in lots of cash," said Doug Whitley, president and chief executive officer of the chamber. "We are coming out of a recession and this has been very hard time for small businesses and increases in the cost of doing business in the form of increasing the minimum wages probably has a negative effect requiring that business owners to either not hire anybody new or reduce the amount those current employees work, making it difficult for those businesses to continue to make ends meet."

Whitley said the state already has one of the highest minimum wage rates in the country. According to the Department of Labor, Illinois has the fourth-highest minimum wage.

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Westchester, is sponsoring a bill to raise Illinois' minimum wage to $10 an hour. The bill has not received much activity this year. Lightford said the current wage has not kept up with the cost of living.

"When a man or woman who both head a household and both work minimum wage jobs, I think it's really tragic if you work hard and not have enough working 40 hours a week," Lightford said. "You should be able to live well and in comfort, raise your children, be able to take care of them and provide for them and not live on public assistance."

During his State of State Address in February, Gov. Pat Quinn said, "Nobody in Illinois should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty." Spokesman Dave Blanchette said the governor continues to support raising the state's minimum wage and awaits action in the General Assembly.

"Regarding the fast food workers' walk-off today, Gov. Quinn understands the workers' frustration," Blanchette said. "And that is why he continues to be a strong supporter of increasing the minimum wage in Illinois."

Although she and fellow minimum wage earners walked out during their shift Tuesday morning, Williams said she plans to return to work for her scheduled shift on Wednesday. She said the walkout was worth it because she believes she and others have made their point.

"We got to be heard," she said. "That's what we wanted."

Contact reporter Will Buss at wbuss@bnd.com or 618-239-2526.

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