For a piece on the potential economic and social consequences of raising the federal minimum wage in the latest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, I interviewed several low-wage workers about how they manage. As we’ve learned from recent studies, they often rely on public assistance; sometimes they turn to their extended family and friends or charity. One told me she donates plasma when she needs a little cash; a second sleeps in her car. One, Shawndraka Mack, works full-time at McDonald’s (MCD), but noted she can’t afford to eat there.
Mack, who is 40, has been working in the fast food business for 18 years. For the past six, she’s been at a McDonald’s in South Carolina, working 40 hours a week and making $7.60 an hour. “I love what I do, but I don’t want to work for nothing. I want to work for something,” she says.
Mack is raising two teenagers with her fiancé. They live in a mobile home she inherited from her mother on Edisto Island, part of the Gullah community of the Lowcountry and an hour’s drive from the McDonald’s in Charleston. Her fiancé is on disability, and the $600 he receives every month goes toward insurance for her 1990 Honda (HMC) Accord, the phone bill, and some spending money for the kids. Her salary covers gas for her commute, electricity, and everything else the family needs. The kids are on Medicaid.
The family gets $345 a month in food stamps. Mack says she goes to the grocery store once a month, and whatever she buys has to last until the next trip. She brings her lunch to work every day. “I work at McDonald’s and I can’t afford to eat there. It’s crazy.”
It’s not clear who owns the store at which Mack works. According to the McDonald’s website, employees are entitled to free or discounted food. In the U.S. almost 90 percent of McDonald’s 14,100 or so restaurants are owned by franchisees, who can determine whether or not to offer a discount, according to a McDonald’s spokesperson. Mack says her restaurant doesn’t offer any discount.
McDonald’s often notes that its franchisees are independent. Last month, after a study calculated that fast food workers (at all chains) rely on about $7 billion worth of public assistance a year, a McDonald’s spokeswoman wrote to me: “McDonald’s and our independent franchisees provide jobs in every state to hundreds of thousands of people across the country. As with most small businesses, wages are based on local wage laws and are competitive to similar jobs in that market.”
A few weeks ago, Mack joined the effort to raise fast-food workers’ wages to at least $15 an hour. “That would do me just fine,” she says. “I expect to stay at McDonald’s. I just want to get paid more for what I know and what I do. I want to make sure my kids have a better life than I do.”