Bare Minimum

Fast-Food Workers Starving to Live in L.A.

Up to 2,000 people gathered in Los Angeles to picket for a higher minimum wage on Wednesday. Many more would have joined, but they couldn’t afford the time off.

David Goldman/AP

Lekisha Dukes hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in about a year. That was when bedbugs first began infesting her South Los Angeles home. When she’s not at work, she spends most of her time cleaning, hoping she can get on top of the problem, but what she really needs is an exterminator.

Unfortunately for the mother of two, ridding her home of the tiny brown parasites once and for all is a luxury that is well beyond her budget. “I’ve learned to cope with the things,” says Dukes, who gets paid $9 an hour as a home care worker and totals about 20 hours a week. “I am not going to let them run me out of my house.”

Dukes—who gets by with the help of food stamps, doing odd jobs around the neighborhood, and collecting recyclables—was not one of the the low-wage workers who gathered at McDonald’s on Figueroa and 28th Street in downtown Los Angeles as part of a nationwide protest calling for a $15 minimum wage. She had planned to attend but had car trouble, had to handle a crisis with her mentally ill 21-year-old daughter, plus she sounded completely exhausted over the phone.

She would march for a higher minimum wage, but she couldn’t afford it.

“I don’t know how I do it or why I continue,” she says. “I guess I love the people I work with, and they love me, and that motivates me more than anything. Most companies have been a little more giving about their pay. This one is clear-cut: it’s minimum wage, and nothing else. That’s just the way it is.”

That’s a problem for the protesters who gathered beneath the golden arches, their giant balloons with “$15” obscuring the “over 99 billon served” sign. While the Los Angeles Times put their number at less than a thousand, an LAPD source estimated it closer to 2,000. Whatever the size, the rally included other health care workers like Dukes, fast-food employees from many of the major chains, Walmart employees, union members, community activists, as well as adjunct faculty at the nearby University of Southern California.

One of the main speakers both outside of the McDonald’s and on campus at USC where the march concluded was Noura Wedell, an editor at Semiotext(e) and an adjunct professor of critical studies at USC.

“Twenty-two percent of [USC’s] part-time faculty earn less than the federal poverty level,” Wedell, one of the many assembled USC employees wearing orange “faculty forward” T-shirts, told the crowd gathered at the McDonald’s. “The crisis of poverty we are all experiencing is a governmental decision, a managerial created crisis designed to govern us. We are all experiencing the difficulties… of those injustices.”

Along with USC, one of the major symbolic and actual targets of the protest was McDonald’s, which has been one of the main focuses of Fight for 15 since the movement first started in NYC in 2012. Fast-food workers had gone on strike that November.

The fast-food giant made an attempt to soften the blow of the many protests. In addition to L.A., rallies were held in over 190 cities, and as far away as Italy.

In early April, they announced enhanced benefits and a wage increase for employees at company-owned restaurants, which only includes about 10 percent of them. The move largely infuriated the company’s franchisees, who likened it to a stab in the gut.

A spokesperson at McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, did not return The Daily Beast’s call for comment.

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Anali Quintero, 19, a biology major at East Los Angeles College, has found herself not being able to afford gas to get to school— much less buy books for class—despite her job at a Long Beach McDonald’s. She sees Fight for 15 as only part of the issue.

“Yes, we want fair wages, but it also goes beyond that,” says Quintero, who with her mirrored heart-shaped sunglasses, dyed hair, and shorts looked like she could be attending last weekend’s Coachella instead of a labor rally. “McDonald’s does not allow employees to be full time. They are expecting people to raise families and to get by on 25 hours a week.”

Quintero, for one, wasn’t worried about the possibility of going on strike leading to a loss of a job. “My manager is nice,” she said. “This is not about managers.”

Indeed, throughout the rally, there seemed little animosity toward individual employers, who were viewed by protesters—and even those who couldn’t make it like Lekisha Dukes—as simply taking advantage of a law that benefits them.

“All this is about is getting by just a little bit better,” says Dukes. “It would mean spending time with my son on the weekends instead of trying to do extra work all the time. And I would be able to pay the bills more, like the light bill.”

“Life gets thrown at you and all you can do is just run for it,” Dukes adds. “It would just be nice to have less stress.”