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April 15th was more than just tax day for low-wage workers and their sympathizers. From coast to coast, low-wage workers took to the streets to protest their low wages.

Protests for $15-an-hour

From New York to Los Angeles, thousands of workers and protesters across the nation marched and stood in front of fast-food locations and on college campuses to demand $15-an-hour wages. No arrests were reported though at least one McDonald’s in New York City was temporarily shut down by protesters. McDonald’s stores kept-drive throughs open even when the restaurants locked up their walk-up services.

Origins of Low-Wage Protests

The move for higher wages for low-wage workers began two years ago. But over the two years, the movements have grown to include people outside of just low-wage workers, and now includes a range of workers workers from adjunct professors to home care and child care providers to Walmart employees.

Strikers and protesters have even occasionally been joined by high-profile officials, such as former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich. Reich actually led a walkout at a McDonald’s location in Oakland that prompted three workers to go on strike.

Largest-ever Mobilization for Higher Wages

Organizers of the recent protests have called it the largest-ever mobilization of U.S. workers that are seeking higher pay. Thousands of protesters took part in what organizers claim are marches and protests that took place in 226 cities coast to coast. The protests were also were not restricted to the United States: McDonald’s stores in Athens, Toronto, Sao Paulo, and Hong Kong were all hit by protesters demanding higher wages.

Fight for $15

“It’s something different,” said Kendall Fells, an organizing director of Fight for $15. The organization is funded by the Service Employees International Union. “This is much more of an economic and racial justice movement than the fast-food workers strikes of the past two years.”

Protesters in Manhattan lay on the pavement outside a McDonald’s and chanted, “This is what democracy looks like,” and waved “Fight for $15” signs.

“We are the backbones of these fast-food restaurants, and I believe that we should be more rewarded,” said Jorge Math, a McDonald’s cashier. He makes $8.75 an hour. “Most of us have to get a second job so we can sustain ourselves.”

Keeshan Harley is a member of Make the Road New York, a nonprofit that focuses on justice issues. “In New York City, it’s kind of impossible to work on $8 an hour when you have $1,900 to $2,000 rents,” Harley said. “So we need $15 an hour. That’s the bare minimum. That is just moving toward sustainability in the city.”

Strikes on Tax Day

 According to Fells, the strikes being planned for Tax Day was intentional to bring the public’s attention to the strain that low wages place on not only public budgets but taxpayers who often have to foot the bill for families that are reliant on public assistance programs like well-fare and other food stamp services.

Small Steps Towards Higher Wages

Recently, the nation’s largest private employers — Walmart and McDonald’s — made small movements to improve wages for their employees.

McDonald’s Wages

Beginning July 1, 2015, the starting wage at McDonald’s 1,500 company-owned restaurants in the US will be raised to $1 more than the nationally mandated minimum wage. This increase will only apply to the company-owned restaurants and not the privately owned ones. These company-owned restaurants account for only 10% of the more than 14,000 restaurants across the nation.

The 10% increase will mean the average hourly wage will increase from $9.01 to $9.90. By the end of 2016, McDonald’s expects that that average hourly wage will exceed $10. Employees that have worked there for at least one year of employment will also receive five days of paid vacation.

But what about the other locations? McDonald’s insists that wages are set not by the company but by each and every independent franshisee owner at about 90% of its U.S. restaurants. Those are the people that will make the biggest impact when it comes to setting fair wages.

Employees still feel that the increase at the company-owned stores is only a small step. According to Brooks, an employee at a Charlotte, North Carolina McDonald’s, “this is too little to make a real difference, and covers only a fraction of workers. It’s a weak move for a company that made $5.6 billion in profits last year. We’re going to keep fighting until we win $15 and union rights for all fast-food workers and our families.”

In a statement, McDonald’s said: “We respect people’s right to peacefully protest, and our restaurants remain open every day with the focus on providing an exceptional experience for our customers. Recently, McDonald’s USA announced a wage increase and paid time off for employees at its company-owned restaurants and expanded educational opportunities for eligible employees at all restaurants. This is an important and meaningful first step as we continue to look at opportunities that will make a difference for employees.”

Walmart Wages

Giant retailer Walmart also announced its employees would receive raises as of April 2015. That move will impact 500,000 full-time and part-time associates, which make up more than a third of its work force at Walmart U.S. stores and Sam’s Clubs. That increase was to $9, which marks $1.75 above the federal minimum wage.

Walmart also has plans to increase employees wages to $10 an hour by February 1, 2016. The increase in wages will reportedly cost the company about $1 billion in its 2015 fiscal year.

Strike Sympathizers

Other higher profile names have come to the sides of the strikers, including: George Zimmer, founder and former CEO of Men’s Wearhouse. “I think that capitalism needs some modifications if it’s going to remain sustainable,” he said. “But I’m encouraged. I think this is the first generation since mine that’s prepared to collaborate, not just compete.”

Still, not everyone is sympathetic. “The protests aren’t about wages or working conditions, they are about promoting the SEIU’s campaign to unionize the fast-food industry. Yet after investing two years and at least $30 million in these PR stunts, the SEIU still struggles to find actual employees to participate, let alone express an interest in joining a union,” said Glenn Spencer, vice president of the Workforce Freedom Initiative for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Presidential Race

As the race for President begins to take shape, it goes without saying that wage fairness will be an issue presidential candidates will need to address. In his State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress, business owners, and local representatives to take action in raising the wage floor across the nation.

“Americans will support you if you take this on,” he said. “This will help families. It will give businesses customers with more money to spend. It doesn’t involve any new bureaucratic program. So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise.”

Local Governments

Regardless of what happens in Congress, a number of other local governments have taken action.

In 2014, New Jersey residents voted to raise the state’s minimum wage by $1 an hour to $8.25.

And voters in SeaTac, the town centered around the Seattle-Tacoma airport in Washington state, voted to raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour. Mayor Ed Murray has made raising the minimum wage a key part of his agenda in hopes that the $15 per hour will be available to all city workers in Seattle.

Where You Live

But the cost of living varies widely across the nation, and is completely dependent on where you live. Amy Glasmeier, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor that studies wages, has recently released research that found a living wage can range between $12 and $25. That gap is based on paying the most basic, necessary bills like food and shelter.

Critics of Raising the Minimum Wage

Critics of raising the minimum wage insist that a higher minimum wage will hurt jobs because employers will be forced to hire fewer people or reduce their hours. Compensating for the extra expense of paying employees will hurt consumers because of the need to increase prices to offset pay.

Employment Lawyer

If you feel you have been discriminated against at work, or have experienced other adverse actions, you should contact an employment lawyer.

The employment lawyers at RHM LAW LLP handle many types of employment law claims, with an emphasis on the following:

  • Wrongful termination: Employees who believe they were let go from their jobs based on a discriminatory action can take legal action against their employers. Discriminatory actions can be based upon a person’s gender, sexual orientation, race, disability, medical condition (including pregnancy), age, national origin or religion. Our lawyers can investigate the claim and effectively represent your rights and interests.
  • Wage and hour litigation: Employees can pursue claims for unpaid overtime, unpaid meal and rest breaks, minimum wage pay and other claims related to wages and hours worked. Our law firm is familiar with the specific rules of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) along with federal and state wage and hour laws.

Contact us today if you need help. Our attorneys understand the frustrations that can come with trying to understand employment laws. We welcome the opportunity to speak with you about your specific dispute.

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