In Kentucky, the current minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, the same as the federal minimum wage. Yet it is estimated that $17.18 per hour, full time, is necessary to support a Kentucky family of two adults and two children. That means countless families are living on the edge of poverty, even if both parents have full-time jobs. Minimum wage food service employees across the country are hoping to change that.
Recently, thousands of employees in Kentucky and other states walked out on their jobs at various fast food restaurants, hoping to increase their wages from $7.25 to $15 per hour. One employee noted that even with two jobs, he did not have enough money to buy shoes for his children or insure his car. The protest lasted one day and took place at a time when even members of Congress are calling for a minimum wage increase.
While the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provides numerous protections for hourly workers, including a minimum wage, additional pay for work over eight hours in a day (or 40 in a week), and time for breaks and meals, it does not mandate that the minimum wage be tied to the cost of living. Therefore, the minimum wage has tended to lag behind. While some states have higher minimum wages to bridge the gap, Kentucky -- as noted above -- is not one of them. Many have called for some sort of wage boost: President Obama has advocated for an increase to $9 an hour, while 100 economists recently supported a bill that would have raised the minimum wage to $10.50 an hour.
Those who seek an increase have traditionally run up against industry claims that more money means fewer jobs. This time is no exception. The restaurant industry argues that if workers get $15 an hour, restaurants will close and there will be fewer jobs all around. Yet given the restaurant industry's profits, many employees view such arguments with skepticism.
Although the fast food employees participated in a strike, they do not belong to a union. However, their willingness to strike suggests that parts of the food industry may one day be unionized. Fast food employees have traditionally been tough to organize because it is such a high-turnover industry whose workers are thought to be "easily expendable." Yet for this latest protest, the Service Employees International Union has provided funding and staff to help organize.