The fast food industry—blaming the victim

The Fast Food Industry is a strange predator that satisfies its ravenous appetite for profit by stealing from its employees and then blames them for being in dire financial straits.

McDonald’s recently conspired with Visa and International Wealth Watchers on a website called Practical Money Skills that allegedly helps people “simplify money management, reduce expenses and meet your financial goals.” [1] The site has sparked controversy due to what some workers perceive as a hidden agenda.

Low Pay is Not argues that the site’s primary function is to shift the blame from employer to employee by making it appear that their employees’ financial difficulties are not caused by their paltry wages but by their own fiscal irresponsibility and lack of maturity. The organization called the site’s contents “unbelievable.”

McDonald’s budget managing proposal is deeply flawed. For one thing it seems to be primarily geared toward teenagers even though the majority of people in the industry are adults with families to support. Second, their budget only “works” if the person gets a second job. Third, their budget outline does not include necessities like food, gas or childcare.

The site even boasts the arrogant claim, “Helping you succeed financially is one of the many ways McDonald’s is creating a satisfying and rewarding work environment.” And yet their own math shows that people can’t even live on what they call a salary.

McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson and his cronies are living in a fantasy land. But since their employees have to face the grim realities of everyday life, they are not investing themselves in their bosses’ delusions.

This coincides with the wave of strikes that have erupted across the US in the last few months. The ripples of this wave were caused in part by New York-based Fast Food Forward, which was created to organize fast food workers, challenging the CEOs of McDonald’s, Domino’s, Papa John’s, Yum! Brands, Wendy’s and Burger King.

Similar strikes have broken out in Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, Washington, DC, and Seattle.

In the age of globalization, one of the only booming industries left in the US is in Fast Food, which generates $200 billion a year. Despite near record-high profits, employees are only earning the bare minimum required by law.

Last year the US Department of Labor reported that, “75.3 million workers in the United States age 16 and over were paid at hourly rates, representing 59.0 percent of all wage and salary workers. Among those paid by the hour, 1.6 million earned exactly the prevailing federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.” [2]

The average fast food worker makes an annual salary of $11,000, a meager sum that drives many people below the poverty line. Fast-food workers in New York City are organizing for $15 an hour and the right to unionize without interference from their bosses. Their motto is, “Can’t survive on 7.25.”

In 2012 a study by the National Employment Law Project revealed that “today’s federal minimum wage . . . is decades out of date. In terms of purchasing power, its value is 30 percent lower today than it was in 1968.” [3]

While these restaurants expand their menus, they are implementing a wide variety of ways to pick their employee’s pockets.

Fast Food Forward stated in a May petition that the “obscene profit earned by paying workers poverty wages just isn’t enough for [the fast food corporations]—they also steal money from employees . . . by bouncing paychecks, forcing staff to work unpaid and off the clock, and illegally deducting money for things like uniforms and trainings. It’s outrageous and must stop.”

These are not frivolous claims.

For example, when it comes to charging employees for their uniforms, the Fair Labor Standards Act clearly states that “an employee who is subject to the statutory minimum wage . . . the employer may not make any deduction from the employee’s wages for the cost of the uniform nor may the employer require the employee to purchase the uniform on his/her own.” [4]

The strikes have helped raise awareness for their plight and even non-strikers have voiced their concerns.

Twenty-seven-year-old Natalie Gunshannon of Dallas, Pennsylvania, is a single mother and works at McDonald’s. She drafted an online petition addressing the company’s payment scheme of issuing JP Morgan debit cards instead of paychecks.

“I didn’t expect that the only way I would be paid would be on a debit card that would dock pay that I earned through lots of different fees,” Gunshannon wrote. “When I asked if McDonald’s could pay me through direct deposit to my local credit union, which doesn’t charge withdrawal fees, I was told that the debit card was the only option.”

“These cards come with a lot of fees: from fees for cash withdrawals to balance inquiries to lost or stolen cards to overdrafts and even inactivity fees. The federal government has helped reduce fees on credit and debit cards that most consumers use, but those protections don’t apply to the kinds of cards companies like McDonald’s are using to pay employees.” [5]

This is a familiar trend in McDonald’s operations and others in the industry.

According to The Manifesto of the Fast Food Worker, in 1972, McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc “lobbied Congress and the White House to pass new legislation, known as the McDonald’s Bill, that would allow employers to pay 16- and 17-year-old kids wages 20% lower than the minimum wage. This would reduce the wages of many of its workers to $1.28 an hour.

“The McDonald’s Bill failed, but fast-food industry leaders have attempted to get similar bills passed at a state level. In Washington State in the last year, the fast-food companies have been at the forefront of lobbying the legislature to pass a bill to create a sub-minimum wage.” [6]

In the words of French author Honore de Balzac, “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” Or in this case many great crimes.


[1] Practical Money Skills

[2] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 26, 2013

[3] “Big Business, Corporate Profits, and the Minimum Wage,” Executive Summary, by National Employment Law Project, July 2012

[4] US Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division, Fact Sheet #16: Deductions From Wages for Uniforms and Characteristics

[5] Petition: McDonald’s: Stop paying employees with debit cards loaded with fees

[6] “The Fast-Food Industry and How it Was Built,” Manifesto of the Fast Food Worker, Page 16

Mike Kuhlenbeck is a freelance journalist and author whose work has appeared in The Des Moines Register, Z Magazine and Little Village. He is a proud member of the National Writers Union and the Society of Professional Journalists. He can be reached at

2 Responses to The fast food industry—blaming the victim

  1. Ginger Q. Barron

    Who can blame it? Fast Food Nation, Schlosser’s 2001 exposé, racked up 1.4 million sales and provided food for thought on everything from slaughterhouse worker conditions to the ingredients that make french fries quite so moreish. That, along with Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, in which the film-maker spent a month eating McDonald’s and infamously discovered his liver “turning to pâté”, plus a general shift towards healthier food, took the sheen off the golden arches. Indeed, many thought the smile might be wiped off Ronald McDonald’s face for good. While this turned out to be premature, you suspect the news that Schlosser’s Chew On This is written for the fast food industry’s key demographic – children – was hardly greeted with Happy Meals all round. Rather, you would think the industry want to do all it could to stop him.

  2. Why do they do this? Budgetary pressures. Schools get some of their lunch money from Uncle Sam in the form of the National School Lunch Program. While the federal money covers the cost of lunches for children from low income families, it doesn’t pay for all of the labor and facilities costs. To do that, schools rely on selling food to kids. And to do THAT, they have to sell foods the kids will actually buy. Often, that means brand name fast food.