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A Low-Wage US Contractor Just Cooked Your Burger

People hold signs during a protest for better wages for fast food workers.
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People hold signs during a protest for better wages for fast food workers.

Melissa Roseboro has worked at the McDonald's outlet at the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. for nearly a year. The 53-year-old grandmother said she just got a raise—of 8 cents.

That brings her hourly wage to $8.33 an hour and was the reason she joined 200 other federal contract workers in the nation's capital to stage a one-day walkout Tuesday, forcing several food outlets in the city to shut down for the day.

"I don't make enough money to survive," said Roseboro, a native of North Carolina and who said she's worked in the restaurant industry most of her adult life.

"I can't support myself or my family when it comes to paying bills, and they only let me work 35 hours a week," Roseboro explained. "Most of what I eat is at McDonald's.They do give us that but I still have to go on food stamps, which is about $16 a month."

(Read more: Wal-Mart vs. the Feds: Who's the Low-Wage Job King?)

"I work very hard and look over three different areas of the place," said Roseboro. "It's tough. We need to be making $10 an hour.to make a decent living."

Roseboro and the other workers are employed under federal contracts with private companies in industries like retail, food and defense. But a recent report states that the jobs are adding to the growing army of low wage workers.

A study released earlier this month from the public policy group Demos states that through various forms of government funding in the private sector, nearly two million people are making $12 an hour or less. The number of workers at Wal-Mart and McDonald's together at $12 an hour or less is currently around 1.5 million, according to the report.

'People Are Frustrated'

What took place in Washington DC has been part of a small but steady number of job actions by low-wage workers in recent weeks—whether they are under federal contract or not.

In Milwaukee, Chicago, New York, St. Louis and Detroit, workers have staged walk outs against McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, and retail stores Walmart and Simply Fashion. They're calling for higher minimum wages of $15 an hour and the right to unionize without retaliation.

(Read more: Longer Benefits Keep People Jobless? Maybe Not)

"I think people are frustrated with what's going on in the economy when it comes to wages," said Steve Kropp, a professor of law and a labor expert at Stetson University.

"Wages are not going up and we're still feeling the effects of the recession," Kropp said. "The federally contracted workers and others are trying to bring some attention to their status that doesn't seem to be improving."

"Workers are standing up because they've had enough," said Emily Rosenberg, the director of the Labor Education Center at DePaul University.

"From teachers, to musicians to retail workers to all kinds of people, we're seeing more protests," Rosenberg explained. "There's nothing to lose when your back is against the wall."

Lawyer: Nobody Wants to 'Screw' Workers

For their part, companies like McDonald's—which earned $1.27 billion in profits in the first quarter of 2013—say they're doing what they can for their workers.

"Employees are paid competitive wages and have access to a range of benefits to meet their individual needs," McDonald's said in a statement on May 10.

"I've never had an employer say to me 'I want to screw as many workers as I can,'" said Steve Erf, an employee benefits partner at McDermott Will & Emory who has represented management in labor issues. "They're going to pay what the market says they should."

"And people have to remember that when it comes to federal contracts, they usually go to the company that submits the lowest bid, so having low labor costs is part of that," Erf said.

Dina Dwyer-Owens is CEO and Chairwoman of the Dwyer Group, a holding company for several home service franchise businesses, and said that low wage jobs should be a starting point, not an end.

(Read more: Fed Hawks, Doves Divided Over Improved Labor Market)

"I started at a minimum wage job and worked my way up so I think everyone has a chance to advance if they put in the work," Dwyer-Owens said. "I'm not saying it's easy but it can get done."

"We offer people a chance to grow with us. Minimum wage isn't even part of the discussion," Dwyer-Owens added.

In his state of the Union speech, President Obama proposed an increase in the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour. That would be $18,000 a year for a full-time worker, still below the federal poverty level for a family of three. Chances of that happening are slim, said Steve Erf, who sees the recent work actions as politically motivated.

"I think this is a way for unions to get a toe hold in companies, especially since they represent such a small percentage of workers in the private sector," Erf said. "This is part of the Democratic agenda with Obama in the White House."

Others see it differently.

"I'm not sure it's to get unions in companies, so much as to draw attention to the plight of workers," said Jason Bent, a professor of law and labor analyst at Stetson University. "The difficulty is that they could lose sympathy. Walmart customers might not care about the wages of workers if they get the lowest prices possible when they shop."

"It's too early to see if this type of movement will pay off," Brent added. "It would take a huge movement from the public for something to happen."

Melissa Roseboro is hoping something does change.

"I can't say what's going to happen but we need to get more," Roseboro said. "I'm worried about losing my job. I just have to keep toughing it out. I just know that I can't live on $250 a week."

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