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Fast-food workers press for wage hike

Four fast-food restaurants in San Diego were hit by labor protests Thursday as part of a worldwide action pressing for higher pay and more organizing rights for fast-food workers.

As part of a movement that has been picking up steam over the past six months, there were protests and walkouts in 150 cities from Los Angeles to Boston on Thursday and similar actions in 33 other countries, including such diverse locales as Brazil, Germany, India, Japan, Malawi, Morocco and the United Kingdom.

The goal: to push fast-food wages to $15 per hour, compared to wages that at last count averaged around just pennies above the proposed $9 statewide minimum wage that will take effect July 1.

In San Diego, the protests began near daybreak at a Burger King on Mount Hope and by noon had moved to a Burger King in Clairemont and then a McDonald’s and Burger King in City Heights.

The protests drew roughly 50 labor activists — including Mickey Kasparian, head of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council — as well as 24 fast-food workers who temporarily walked off their jobs to take part.

"This issue is something I've been very agitated about," said Maritza Kaser, a Burger King cashier who joined the protest.

Kaser — who makes so little money at the restaurant that she often sleeps in her car — said she was not afraid of repercussions when returning to work, because of legal protections for taking part in labor actions.

Fast-food restaurants, supported by conservative economists, say that raising the wage to $15 would not make sense, since they would have to cut their costs in order to offset the wages — and that could mean mass layoffs. The restaurant industry-backed Employment Policies Institute estimates that half a million jobs could be lost if restaurants raised their prices so high.

“Instead of securing higher paychecks, these union-backed protesters are going to send fast-food employees straight to the unemployment line,” EPI research director Michael Saltsman said in a statement Thursday. “The idea that fast-food restaurants can absorb a $15 wage mandate without consequence is so outlandish that even liberal economists acknowledge the costs.”

The call for a $15 wage for minimum wage workers began in protests in New York last November and has since then spread worldwide.

Local protestors say that particularly in San Diego, with its high cost of living, fast-food workers can't make ends meet.

As of last May, about 8,300 San Diegans were working as fast-food cooks, making a median wage of $9.12 per hour or $18,970 per year, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly 25,000 other food preparation workers — including at fast-food restaurants — make a median of $9.19 per hour or $19,110 per year.

In comparison, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates workers need at least $11.38 per hour — or $23,670 per year — to make ends meet in San Diego, while the local Center for Policy Initiatives, or CPI, pegs those figures at $13.09 per hour or $27,655 per year.

In addition, labor activists say, fast-food companies have been cutting back the hours of many workers to part-time status to avoid having to pay for health care benefits. Kaser, for instance, said she once worked full-time but has since been cut to 20 hours a week and has so far been unable to find full-time work elsewhere. That has led her to sleep in her car, with occasional splurges at a Motel 6 if she wants to sleep in a bed and take a shower.

Although most fast-food workers are in their upper teens or early 20s, roughly 40 percent are above the age of 25 and roughly a third of the adult workers are parents, based on nationwide data from the Census Bureau. MIT estimates that workers in San Diego need to make $22.83 per hour to raise a child; CPI pegs it at $25.37.

Local fast-food workers say they typically have to seek second jobs to supplement their income, ranging from late-night janitorial work, providing home care to the elderly or other jobs that pay close to the minimum wage.

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