Published January 22nd, 2021 at 6:00 AM
A steady line of about 70 cars, filled with fast-food workers from Kansas City, their family members and supporters, packed the parking lot and streets in front of the McDonald’s on Van Brunt Boulevard, honking and waving signs in support of a $15 minimum wage and a fast-food workers union.
Among them was Terrence Wise, 41, a McDonald’s worker who’s been advocating to increase the minimum wage for over seven years as part of the national Fight for $15 movement. Wise knows firsthand the difficulties of being a fast-food worker during a pandemic.
“We were already hanging by a thread,” he said. “And then the pandemic came along and really put us in dire situations.”
Organized by local worker-rights advocacy group Stand Up KC, fast-food workers from more than 20 fast-food locations in the Kansas City area went on strike Jan. 15, with snow blanketing the city, joining fast-food workers in at least 14 other U.S. cities in a national day of action to demand a path to unionization and raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. The nationwide strike took place on the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who staunchly advocated for workers’ rights.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas also joined the rally to support raising the minimum wage.
Although Kansas City residents voted to raise the minimum wage in 2017, where it would increase to $15 an hour in 2022, the Missouri legislature passed a law that same year blocking that move by prohibiting cities from establishing a minimum wage different from the state minimum wage. Missouri’s current minimum wage is $10.30 per hour, which would be $21,424 a year for a person who works 40 hours per week.
As the coronavirus pandemic has continued upending millions of lives across the U.S. and forced many to work from home, fast-food workers have been in the vulnerable position of continuing to work and risk potential exposure to the virus.
The rally came in the leadup to the inauguration of President Joe Biden, who has expressed support for raising the federal minimum wage to $15. Opponents of increasing the minimum wage say the measure would place an undue burden on employers and could force more job losses, although Treasury Secretary nominee Janet Yellen disputes the potential impact on jobs.
Wise said the pandemic has further underscored the need for a union.
“Even though I make $14 an hour… I don’t have benefits: no dental, no paid sick leave, no health care,” Wise said. “So if I get sick, you know, I’m just screwed.”
Life was already difficult for Wise, his fiancée and their three kids before the pandemic — they were evicted right when the pandemic hit and had to move in with his brother-in-law’s family, putting two families under a single roof and making social distancing difficult. On top of that, Wise had his hours cut.
“Some folks… were taken off the schedule completely, losing hours in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “Not only was it dealing with that part, but going to work with the mental aspect, being called an essential worker, being at work and fearing getting sick, or even getting your coworkers sick or bringing something home to your family.”
Service industry workers have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, with thousands either losing their jobs or having their hours reduced. In the Kansas City area, workers in the hospitality industry have lost their jobs at rates higher than any other industry.
Both Wise and his fiancée, who works as a nursing assistant, often worry about essentials, like keeping food on the table and a roof over their daughters’ heads. The pandemic has added another layer: the stress of trying not to contract COVID-19.
“Just dealing with the mental aspect of coming home, trying to still raise the kids, still not making a living wage, you know, everything is still on the rise — bread, gas and milk — but our wages stay the same,” Wise said.
Continuing to work in a customer-facing environment during the pandemic is further compounded by the lack of employer-provided health insurance and benefits for workers. It’s estimated that 25% of fast-food service workers are offered paid sick leave, compared to 75% of Americans working in the private industry.
Without benefits, fast-food workers who have to quarantine because of a positive COVID-19 test or because of possible exposure to the virus risk losing out on days’ worth of pay.
“If I miss a day, that’s half of my rent. If I miss a day, that’s food on the table that my kids don’t have,” said Fran Marion, 40, of Kansas City. “If I miss a day, that’s not me being able to provide my son with internet so they continue his online schooling.”
Marion faced that reality when she took five days off work at McDonald’s last year after getting sick, though not with COVID-19. For Marion, five days off work meant five days without pay.
“I lost five days of pay that I could not get back,” she said. “And if I had sick pay, I wouldn’t have been in that situation that put me too far behind, like I’m trying to play catch-up as we speak.”
Historically, it’s been rare for workers in the fast-food sector to unionize. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unionization rates for food preparation and serving-related jobs were among the lowest of any occupation.
More than just earning $15 an hour, Wise said, fast-food workers also need the protections that come with benefits and job security.
“We need a union to protect not only our hours, job security, but to get the benefits, health care, vacations we never get,” he said. “We need to have a seat at the table and a voice on those things as well.”
Some fast-food companies, like Chipotle and Starbucks, provided their employees with temporary hazard pay raises, but McDonald’s did not do so.
Mili Hobbs of Kansas City also attended the Stand Up KC rally. She currently makes less than $10 an hour at Arby’s and spends much of the day getting to and from work on the bus. Raising her wage to $15 per hour would change that.
“The wage increase would help us get exactly what we need to be able to go out there and be more productive,” Hobbs said. “And let us take care of the rent and bills that we have to, along with the essentials that we need as well.”
Since first launching in 2012 in New York City, the Fight for $15 movement has even more hope that it could see the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 increase for the first time in 12 years. Increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 is one of the primary policies included in President Biden’s recently announced coronavirus stimulus plan. Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill would also get rid of the current minimum wage thresholds for tipped workers and people with disabilities. The plan would also ease some of the obstacles that currently make unionizing difficult in the U.S.
Biden’s support for the policy gives Wise hope that workers like himself will get to have a voice in the discussion. Still, he said it’s important to hold elected leaders accountable.
“We want them to work together with workers and our employers to give us a seat at the table,” Wise said.
More states and localities have raised their minimum wages in recent years. According to a 2020 study from the National Employment Law Project, 20 states and 32 cities and localities will have seen an increase in the minimum wage at the start of 2021; in 27 of those jurisdictions, the minimum wage will have reached or passed $15 per hour. The report also notes that five states and 18 cities and counties will increase the minimum wage later this year.
In last year’s elections, a ballot measure in Florida to increase the state minimum wage to $15 by 2026 passed with 61% of the vote. Florida joins seven other states, including California, Connecticut and Maryland, that approved an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour or higher.
At the start of this year, the minimum wage in Missouri increased to $10.30 per hour, after Missouri voters approved a ballot measure in 2018 that increased the state minimum wage by 85 cents per hour yearly until 2023.
That Biden has shown support for a policy that began as a rallying cry for low-wage workers in 2012 shows just how far the movement has come.
“We can see the ripple effect across the country,” Wise said. “And we know that the vast majority of Americans support it as well.
Celisa Calacal covers economics and civic engagement issues for The Beacon, an online news outlet based in Kansas City focused on local, in-depth journalism in the public interest.