Customers want a deal when they order burgers and fries. But those cheap eats squeeze franchise store owners who say they already survive on slim margins. And the corporations have to grow profits to keep shareholders happy.
"There's no room in the fast-food business model for substantially higher pay levels without raising prices for food," says Richard Adams, a former McDonald's franchisee who now runs a fast-food consulting business.
Caught in that triangle are the workers. The median hourly wage for a fast-food cook last year was $9, up from about $7 a decade ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But many workers make the federal minimum wage, which was last raised in 2009. At $7.25 an hour, that's about $15,000 a year, assuming a 40-hour workweek. It's well less than half of the median salary of an American worker.
The protests come as President Barack Obama has called for an increase of the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, with some members of Congress and economists calling for a hike as well. And the fast-food workers movement is getting financial support as well as training from organizers of the Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 2 million workers.
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Workers protesting in cities including New York, Chicago and Detroit, are pushing for $15 an hour, which would mean wages of $31,000 a year. But the figure is seen as more of a rallying point and many say they'd be happy with even a few bucks more.
"Anything to make it more reasonable," says Jamal Harris, 21, who earns $7.40 an hour working at three different fast-food restaurants around Detroit—a Burger King, a Long John Silver's, and a Checkers—because he's never sure how many hours he'll get at any one job.
The same is true for Robert Wilson, a 25-year-old McDonald's employee in Chicago. "It was never a consistent check," said Wilson, who lives with his mother and brother who also work at the restaurant.
Wilson says he was given one 10-cent raise in the past four years. That brings his pay up to $8.60 an hour after seven years working at the restaurant.
Low wages and a lack of benefits for workers aren't anything new in the fast-food industry, of course. It's why "McJob" has been a pejorative term for so long. What's changing now is that such jobs are playing a bigger role in the U.S. economy, bringing the fast-food protests closer to home for many.
Nearly 70 percent of the jobs gained since the recession ended have been in low-paying industries such as fast-food or retail. That's even though half of the jobs lost during the Great Recession were in industries that pay between $38,000 and $68,000 a year.
Currently, the median annual wage for all U.S. full-time wage and salary workers is about $40,350, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's based on weekly earnings of $776.
The tilt toward low-wage jobs is what makes it so critical for fast-food and retail jobs to provide better pay, says Robert Reich, an advocate for workers who served as Labor Secretary in the Clinton administration. "It's impossible for the economy to run on all four cylinders unless consumers have enough purchasing power to keep the economy going," he said.
Still, raising wages for fast-food jobs means figuring out where the money would come from.
More than 90 percent of McDonald's and Burger King locations in the U.S. are owned by franchisees who say they have to worry about making rent, buying supplies, paying workers and shelling out royalties and fees to their parent company for use of their name and brand. Franchisees say they have to do this while trying to eke out a profit on the super-cheap menu items that customers have come to expect.
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Franchisees say their profit margins are thin—they make 4 cents to 6 cents on average for every dollar they take in—and that they can't afford to hike pay, particularly at a time when companies are trumpeting value menus amid heightened competition.
Kathryn Slater-Carter, who owns two McDonald's in California, said that what franchisees can pay workers depends "on what money you've got left after all (the company's) interference."
Slater-Carter said that in addition to emphasizing low prices, the company has been putting more costs onto franchisees for things such as software licenses and service contracts for restaurant equipment.
Prices for food ingredients are volatile and insurance and other costs are rising, too, meaning labor is one of the few costs franchisees can control. It's why franchisees often keep hourly wages as low as possible or try to avoid paying overtime, some franchisees and union organizers say.
Not that some franchisees don't pay workers more.
Aslam Khan, chief executive of Falcon Holdings, which owns 165 Church's Chicken and 44 Long John Silver's locations, says his employees start at between $8 and $8.50 an hour. To keep the best, experienced workers, he pays $10 to $13 per hour.
He recognizes that's still not much. "These days the whole family has to work to support the family. In order to put bread on the table, you have to do whatever," he said.
Over the past three years, Khan said that his profit margins have declined from 5 percent to 1 percent as food and other costs have climbed and menu prices remained flat.