Charlotte fast-food workers join national protest

Priscilla Hoyle says she is raising her three children in a hotel room.

When she’s not working three days a week at Bojangles’, she supplements her income by asking strangers for money, she said.

“The only thing I can do is get out here and panhandle just to keep a roof over my children’s heads,” said Hoyle, 22.

On Thursday, she joined about 20 Charlotte fast-food workers who walked off their jobs and demanded higher wages as part of a national push that featured protests in dozens of cities.

Hoyle, who was among those carrying signs and chanting outside a McDonald’s on West Sugar Creek Road, said she earns about $165 each week at the Bojangles’ down the street. She said when she gets off work, she returns to the Charlotte hotel where she and her three children are living.

After the Charlotte protest, Hoyle and others carpooled to Durham, where they planned to join other workers for a midday protest coordinated by the state NAACP.

The fast-food workers are calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Organizers say the effort began with a 2012 protest in New York City and has spread to more than 150 cities around the country.

The Service Employees International Union is financially backing the strikes, which also advocate for a fast-food workers labor union.

Nyeesha Thomas, 24, who works at the McDonald’s where protesters gathered Thursday, said a customer last week threw a sandwich at her because it wasn’t made to his preference. That aggravation, she said, isn’t worth the 25 hours she works each week.

“It’s pretty selfish on their behalf to have ... (wages) so low when they can afford to pay their workers $15 an hour,” she said. “We’re the ones who keep the corporation afloat, and we receive no gratitude.”

After graduating from high school, Thomas said, she attended Fayetteville State University. She said she dropped out six months later because she had trouble going to school and paying her bills.

“It was like watching all my dreams and goals fade away,” she said.

Fast-food chains have said the one-day strikes have hardly affected business, saying that only a handful of workers have walked out at many restaurants. In New York, 21 workers demanding a $15-an-hour wage were arrested while conducting a sit-in outside a McDonald’s in Time Square. Organizers said 50 workers were arrested in Detroit.

Restaurants respond

In a statement released through a public relations firm, the West Sugar Creek Road McDonald’s owner George Forrest said the restaurant provides training and advancement opportunities for those who want it.

“In my restaurants, wages are set according to local and federal laws, the competitive marketplace and job level,” Forrest said in the statement. “We believe that any minimum-wage increase should be implemented over time so that the impact on owners of small and medium-sized businesses is manageable and feasible.”

Bojangles’, also in a statement, said the restaurant offers competitive wages “as a company that operates in a region with a highly desirable cost of living.”

Restaurant trade groups have repeatedly denounced the call for a $15 wage, saying it would push up menu prices and result in less hiring of fast-food workers, especially of entry level, low-skilled workers. The International Franchise Association says a $15 wage would wipe out the profit margins at many fast-food restaurants, while the National Restaurant Association said in a statement that protests are an attempt by unions to “boost their dwindling membership.”

“Most of these people who work in fast-food businesses, while they provide a valuable service, they are unskilled laborers,” said Kenny Colbert, president of The Employers Association, a Charlotte-based group providing training and human resources services to 900 companies.

The going rate for unskilled laborers in Charlotte, Colbert said, is between $11 to $12 an hour at non-fast-food companies.

Raising the minimum wage is “totally unrealistic based upon what unskilled workers in other types of jobs are making,” he said.

A wage increase would likely hurt small-business owners already struggling to make a profit, he said.

Struggling to get by

“Sure, the minimum wage is low. ... It probably needs to be adjusted, but ... companies are going to pay the market rate,” he said. “The market rate is not $15 an hour or close to it for unskilled labor.”

John Wallace, 23, who works 10 hours a day at the Jamba Juice at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, said his salary is too little to support his wife and two children. “Seven twenty-five an hour just doesn’t take care of your family, your kids, your household. You can’t survive off $7.25 alone.”

Dealing with irate customers and stressful job demands doesn’t make it easier, he said.

“You might have two minutes to complete six orders, and you’re getting paid at the bottom of the barrel,” he said.

Jacqueline Ford, owner of the airport Jamba Juice, declined to comment.

Thomas said she supplements her McDonald’s pay with a second job at Firehouse Subs on South Tryon Street. She needs two jobs, she said, to keep her lights on and rent paid.

She’s not concerned that managers and co-workers saw her walk away from her four-hour McDonald’s shift Thursday morning.

“I’m willing to risk $30 pay to be part of a life-changing movement,” she said. The New York Times and Associated Press contributed.