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L.A. Fast Food Workers: Hold the Harassment, Supersize the Respect

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Synika Smith (center) joins Edgar Gonzalez (left) in a chant.

Samuel Quintero has a great responsibility. He is the sole source of income for his mother and younger brother, and has to take desperate measures just to provide what Quintero calls “the bare necessities.”

He adds: “I’ve actually had to rent out my bedroom and other rooms in my house just to get by, and I’m applying for food stamps.”

Quintero has been working at McDonald’s for one year and like many of the company’s employees, says his $8 hourly wage just isn’t enough.

“Sometimes I get the check and I literally don’t even see a dollar from it,” Quintero says. “It goes to the bills or the rent. I see everybody that’s working with me. They’re young and they’re like, ‘Well, we went out and did this or did that,’ and I’m like, ‘I have to support my mom and my little brother.’”

Quintero isn’t alone. McDonald’s employees across the nation are demanding a wage increase from $8 to $15 an hour, claiming they don’t earn enough to support themselves.

“It’s not what you would expect for someone who works for a multibillion-dollar corporation, you know? You would expect to at least get paid over the minimum,” says Quintero.

But low wages are only part of the problem. McDonald’s employees in New York, Michigan and California are suing the company, alleging it forces employees to work off the clock and through their breaks without pay – a practice known as “wage theft.”

The Los Angeles Times reports that Hart Research and Associates conducted a recent nationwide survey for the Low Pay is Not OK campaign.  Of the 1,000 fast-food workers surveyed, 89 percent alleged some form of wage theft.

“They don’t pay me for my breaks like they’re supposed to,” says Quintero, “and sometimes they don’t even give us the breaks.”

In March, McDonald’s released a statement in response to these lawsuits.

Street theater at McDonald's protest.

Street theater at McDonald’s protest.

“We are currently reviewing the allegations in the lawsuits,” said Heidi Barker Sa Shekhem, chief of McDonald’s Global External Communications. “McDonald’s and our independent franchisees are committed to undertaking a comprehensive investigation of the allegations and will take any necessary actions as they apply to our respective organizations.”

This issue isn’t exclusive to McDonald’s. Employees from other fast food companies such as Taco Bell and Burger King are coming forward with personal testimonies of wage theft.

Synika Smith has worked for Burger King for more than a year and claims to be a victim of wage theft.

“Sometimes they’ll harass you during your break,” says Smith, “and they’ll be like, ‘Could you please help? It’s really busy.’ The last time I worked more than eight hours, they fixed it so they didn’t have to pay me overtime.”

Burger King employee Alberto Castro says his experience was similar.

“It has happened to me at one point and it has happened to many of my coworkers,” Castro says. “Many workers are working off the clock — threatened, like if they don’t work off the clock, they’ll get fired. Many workers are not getting paid their full hours.”

But Castro insists that even if they were paid for those missing hours, it wouldn’t be enough.

“Let’s say they paid us for fulltime and a little overtime. It’s still not enough to make a living and that’s what we want, to make a living,” says Castro. “We want to start a life, but right now all we’re doing is struggling to survive.”

McDonald’s insists that its low wages are enough to get by on. In 2013 the company teamed up with Visa to put together an online financial planning site for the chain’s workers. The site was intended to show the feasibility of living on low wages, but ultimately it only drew attention to its impossibility — the plan neglected to allot money for food or gas, and presumed that a worker would have a second job.

For McDonald’s employee Edgar Gonzalez, this insufficient financial plan is an increasingly pressing reality, as he just became a father.

“I’m excited, but I’m worried I’m not going to have enough money for the baby,” says Gonzales. “I’ve got to buy the crib. I’ve got to buy the stroller. I’ve got to buy diapers, diaper bags. I’ve got to buy a whole bunch of stuff.”

Gonzalez claims that his financial situation is only made worse by wage theft.

“They beg you to stay. We feel pressured to stay and not take our breaks, because the breaks take too much time,” says Gonzalez. “Why do we do what they say? Because we want to please our bosses . . . because we’re afraid of retaliation.”

McDonald’s employee Jose Paz shares that fear of retaliation.

“Management can be really intimidating. Just knowing that they have that money and that power behind them,“ says Paz.

In April, Paz confronted that fear. He joined Quintero, Castro, Smith and Gonzalez, along with several other fast food workers, in a protest at a South Los Angeles McDonald’s on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The protest was part of the Fight for 15, a campaign that seeks an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, an end to wage theft and the right to form a union without intimidation.

During the protest, workers poured into the McDonald’s, led by Paz, who confronted his manager for the first time.

“I just had to stand up to him,” says Paz. “I just couldn’t take it anymore. I had to be heard. Not just me, but everyone else too.

But Paz admits he couldn’t look his manager in the eye and today says he would never have considered the confrontation without the support of the Service Employees International Union.

“I knew if I stood up for myself without the union, I probably would’ve been fired long ago,” says Paz. “But now I’m more confident, because my manager knows that I have the union and several other people to back me up. I think he’s going to treat me with more respect. Hopefully.”

Paz says the support of a labor union is a crucial aspect of this fight, but believes management is actively trying to keep workers from joining unions.

“The union came to my work one day and gave me a bunch of flyers to hand out to my coworkers — just information about their rights. I left them in the crew room on the table and when I came back, they were gone,” says Paz. “The next day I caught management going through my bag.”

Unlike his coworkers, Paz is not dependent solely on his McDonald’s paycheck. He lives with parents who provide housing and food for him while he pursues a criminal law degree at a local community college. But Paz says he fights for his coworkers in hopes that they will someday be able to do more than just “struggle to survive.”

“This is more for them, not me. They have families and they barely make it day by day on their minimum wage. I don’t really need the money, but knowing that I can help someone else out, who really needs it . . . that’s important to me.”

But there is something personal at stake for Paz, something a bit more elusive than a wage increase or unionization.

“I just want some respect for what I do. That’s all I ask,” says Paz.


All photos by Kate Flexter

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