Fifty-nine percent of front-line fast-food workers in Texas rely on public assistance programs such as food stamps and Medicaid to support their families, according to a report released on Tuesday.
Nationally, more than half – 52 percent – of the families of front-line fast-food workers use at least one public assistance program, compared with a quarter of the total workforce, according to the report. The research was sponsored by the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Labor Research and Education and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of Urban & Regional Planning.
“The report is a bit shocking,” said one of its authors, economist Sylvia Allegretto, who is co-chair of the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at UC Berkeley. “One would think they’re a last line of defense for a small slice of workers. But this is the majority of workers.”
Some Texas restaurant owners, however, argue that many of their employees are younger workers, and that the jobs teach them the value of hard work and help fuel the economy.
The Employment Policies Institute, which studies employment growth, criticized the report, saying in a press release that it ignores economic evidence that big wage hikes would make fast-food workers worse off because employers would be forced to replace them with automated alternatives.
"Taxpayers do have a choice," said Michael Saltsman, the group's research director. "They can either provide partial support to less-skilled employees who have difficulty finding employment at higher wage rates or they can provide a 100 percent subsidy when these employees lose their jobs due to an unrealistic wage mandate."
Texas had the seventh-largest percentage of front-line fast-food workers on public assistance among the 24 states included in the report. Louisiana had the highest, 73 percent. The researchers omitted states for which there were too few fast-food workers in the census data sample.
Shunica Sinclair, a 36-year-old Houston resident, knows what it's like to work at a fast-food restaurant while turning to public assistance — food stamps, in her case. The Burger King cashier said by phone as she rode the bus home that she provides financial support to her seven children, who live in Beaumont with her aunt.
"It's a struggle," she said of living on her $7.75-per-hour wage. "Without the food stamps, I don't know how I would eat sometimes."
Public assistance nationally for fast-food workers’ families costs nearly $7 billion per year, including $556 million per year for the families of Texas workers, according to the report. The report focused on core front-line workers, which it defined as those who are not in management and work at least 11 hours per week for 27 or more weeks each year.
Fast-food workers in dozens of cities have gone on strike in recent months, calling for $15-an-hour wages. Workers in Dallas, Houston and Austin participated in a nationwide pre-Labor Day strike in August, and there were strikes earlier this year in cities including Chicago, Detroit and Seattle.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, and nationally, the median wage for front-line fast-food workers is $8.94 per hour, according to the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for low-wage workers.
“The overwhelming share of jobs in the fast-food industry pay low wages that force millions of workers to rely on public assistance in order to afford health care, food, and other basic expenses,” the National Employment Law Project said in a report that was also released on Tuesday.
McDonald’s – which employs more restaurant workers in the United States than any other fast-food company – costs taxpayers some $1.2 billion a year in public assistance, according to that report.
A McDonald’s spokeswoman said on Monday that she was unable to comment on the reports since the company had not seen them.
No one from the Texas Restaurant Association was available on Monday to comment, a spokeswoman said. But Richie Jackson, CEO of the association, told The Texas Tribune in an Aug. 27 statement that the majority of minimum-wage restaurant workers are just beginning their professional lives.
“Restaurant jobs teach invaluable skills and a strong work ethic that help workers grow in their professional lives,” Jackson’s statement said. “The restaurant industry is an engine of growth for the Texas economy.”
Tribune reporter Alexa Ura contributed to this story.