Op-Ed: Fighting Wage Theft In The Fast Food Industry

Op-Ed Published in The Huffington Post

By Eric T. Schneiderman

On Thursday, fast-food workers around the world will stage an unprecedented protest for fair wages. They will be speaking out against income inequality -- and the world would do well to listen.

Income inequality is one of the most destructive forces in the United States today. Minimum-wage workers devastated by the economic crash of 2008 have continued to languish in poverty while the subsequent recovery has sent executive compensation soaring.

Nowhere is the disparity starker than in the fast-food industry, which a recent Demos report called the most unequal sector in the U.S. economy. It has some of America's lowest-paid workers -- but its top executives make 1,200 times more than their average employees, according to Demos. Nationally, the average hourly wage for a fast-food worker is about $9 per hour, $4,500 less than the federal government's poverty level threshold of $23,500 for a family of four.

While the industry takes in $200 billion a year, the average fast-food worker in New York City earns just $11,000 annually.

No wonder demonstrations against this gross injustice began in New York, with walkouts at 60 fast-food restaurants in November 2012. Since then, the movement has grown into a nationwide crusade.

While the federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 on the federal level since 2007 and is $8 per hour here in New York, the average salary for fast-food CEOs has quadrupled since 2000.

Thursday's protest promises to be the largest yet. Workers in 150 U.S. cities will join to demonstrate in favor of increasing the minimum wage. Around the world, workers in 30 countries on six continents will join the call for action on equality.

As the movement has grown, the nation has been forced to sit up and take notice. President Obama heard the workers' cries and has urged an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

But the nation's fast-food workers cannot wait for Congress to act -- or accept $10.10, which would still leave a family of four in poverty. They're demanding $15 an hour -- the reason this week's protests are taking place on the 15th of May. They are also demanding that employers respect their right to unionize without retaliation.

As New York State attorney general, it is my job to ensure equal justice under law. The income inequality plaguing our country is an injustice of enormous magnitude that must be remedied. I stand firmly behind the fast-food workers' calls for a fair day's pay for a fair day's work.

While we move toward enacting new, fairer laws, however, we must also make sure that current labor protections are enforced. As the state's chief law enforcement officer, I take that responsibility very seriously, and my office has taken strong action against employers -- including in the fast-food industry -- who have stolen from their workers even the meager wages required by law.

In New York, we are cracking down on fast food franchise owners who cheat their workers. In recent months, we have secured close to $1 million in back pay for about 2,200 Domino's and McDonald's workers across the state.

We must do all we can to make sure working people in New York get every penny they earn. And then, support them in their campaign to increase those earnings.

America's fast-food workers know they cannot wait for the government or industry to do the right thing and pay them a wage they can live on. These are not teenagers working a few hours a week for pocket change; these are heads of household trying to pay the bills and feed and clothe their families. That's why they're taking to the streets.

The fast-food industry must act and increase the wages it pays. But until it does, those workers need the support of everyone who believes in fairness and justice. I stand with them in their important struggle.

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