Editorial: No longer the original recipe

The recent threat by fast-food workers in about 100 cities to walk off the job is just the latest move in a campaign that began about a year ago to call attention to the difficulties of living on the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, or about $15,000 a year for a full-time employee.

And it highlights a basic problem for Americans who sympathize with the workers, but worry about the effect across-the-board pay raises might have on an industry that is so much a part of the nation’s life.

After all, 50 million Americans eat at one of the country’s 160,000 fast food outlets at least once a week, spending some $110 billion on burgers, chicken and pizza. They patronize the restaurants because of their fast service, because the food is unlikely to sicken them and because prices are low.

True, recent stories have focused on the long-term health problems some of that inexpensive food may cause, but the fact is that we’re a nation on the go and many families depend on quick meals.

The formula for fast food was first laid down by a small chain called White Castle, back in 1921. White Castle sold small, square hamburgers with fried onions for a nickel each. The chain’s owners created a system still familiar today. They supplied a franchisee with everything from the building’s cast iron, white enameled facade to its immaculate stainless steel equipment to spotless white uniforms, complete with white paper service caps for their employees. They used centralized bakeries, meat supply plants and warehouses to supply their sites, to ensure that every hamburger sold anywhere was identical.

The key was a food assembly line in which each employee was a replaceable part.

And that’s still the model today. Fast food workers are intended to be short-time, part-time employees — high school students, those filling in between other jobs, college kids who need some additional income. Recently, retired people who wish to supplement Social Security have become a familiar sight.

But the strikes and protests make it clear that many fast food employees today are trying to feed their families on that income alone.

And it’s not enough.

What makes the whole situation worse is that ordinary restaurant workers like waiters or waitresses are expected to fill out their low hourly wage with tips. If their tips fail to increase their pay to the national minimum of $7.25 an hour, then their employer is obliged to make up the difference.

Last month, President Barack Obama said he would back a Senate measure to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, but rally organizers are pushing for $15 an hour.

Massachusetts legislators are considering an increase in the state minimum wage from $8 to $11 an hour by 2015 and then an automatic adjustment for inflation. The minimum wage for tipped employees such as waiters would jump from $2.63 to $6.30, according to the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.

The nation’s economy has forced many Americans to change temporary jobs into permanent ones ... and perhaps that’s the basic problem.

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