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McFail: McDonald’s debt advice to employees — return purchases, skip the takeout

Martha C. White, NBC News contributor
Friday, 22 Nov 2013 | 8:24 AM ET
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McDonald's is once again getting grilled over its employee advice, this time suggesting ways to get out of holiday debt that include returning unopened purchases and bringing a sack lunch.

The criticism comes months after it took heat over an employee budget guide that included no money for heat and $20 a month for health care.

The labor advocacy group Low Pay Is Not OK is lambasting McDonald's for articles on an employee website that suggest workers visit thrift stores instead of the mall, use stale bread and bruised apples rather than throwing them out, and "quit complaining" as a way to reduce stress. And to pay off holiday debt, it suggested returning purchases.

"On a short term basis, do whatever it takes to dig out from your holiday debt," said one article on the McResource Line website, a screen grab of which was provided by Low Pay Is Not OK.

(Read more: McDonald's launch decision on McRib could hurt)

"You may want to consider returning some of your unopened purchases that may not seem as appealing as they did. Selling some of your unwanted possessions on eBay or Craigslist could bring in some quick cash," it continued. "Consider bringing a brown bag lunch and skipping the takeout …. You might also consider a temporary part time job to dig out of debt quickly."

The article appeared to have been removed from the site by midday Thursday.

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McDonald's did not return multiple calls for comment. A company spokeswoman, in a statement emailed to CNBC, said Low Pay Is Not OK's video about the website took the advice out of context and characterized the campaign as "an attempt by an outside organization to undermine a well-intended employee assistance resource website."

Although the spokeswoman said McDonald's and Nurtur Health, which created the site, would "review the content and make any necessary adjustments," she defended the site. "The vast majority of the resources and information on the site are based on credible outside experts and well-published advice," she said.

An executive at Nurtur Health referred queries to McDonald's public relations department.

(Read more: 11 outrageously expensive fast foods)

Ruth Milkman, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York, said the advice is "probably well-intentioned but shows deep ignorance of what it means to survive on a low wage job. Between the low wages and the short hours, it's tough out there."

Felicia Cochran, a McDonald's drive-thru worker who earns less than $8 an hour, criticized the advice about returning holiday purchases in an online chat. "If I've already bought my kids their gifts, I just couldn't do it to them to return their things. We're already poor as it is and we have to do without so much," she said.

Cochran said she hadn't used the McResource Line, but that she's "lucky" to get two days a week on the schedule and she's on food stamps, "cause $7.78/hr doesn't afford much of anything for making a living."

In an earlier campaign, Low Pay Is Not OK reported that the advice given to a McDonald's worker who contacted the McResource Line by phone was to apply for food stamps.

(Read more: McDonald's to test build-your-own burgers)

McDonald's isn't the only company facing criticism for its wages. Wal-Mart Stores came under fire after an article Monday in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer showed photos of the employee area of an Ohio store housing a food donation bin — intended for workers to supply food to other workers.

The flap over McDonald's advice and the Wal-Mart employee food donations highlight a broader challenge pertaining to the burgeoning number of low-wage jobs in the American economy, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

"What we have here is one more situation where workers are fairly powerless," he said. "It raises issues about living wage and minimum wage."

Shrinking union clout and an increasingly bifurcated economy rife with low-wage service jobs give Americans without a college degree less of a chance than generations before them of earning enough for a middle-class lifestyle. "It raises a fundamental question about upward mobility," Carnevale said.

By Martha C. White, NBC News contributor

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