Matt Rourke/AP

Oblivion biggest obstacle for wage hike protests in Philadelphia

For many restaurant workers in the city, the national minimum wage protests came as a surprise

PHILADELPHIA — Fast food workers took to the streets in nearly 200 cities across the United States on Thursday, calling for a $15 an hour minimum wage. But to some who work at the restaurants in Philadelphia, the very existence of the movement came as a surprise.

“If I had known, I definitely would have gone,” said Jannica Alvarez, 20, who works at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet a few blocks away from where workers and union organizers rallied just hours before.

While critics of fast food chains say some restaurants use intimidation tactics against unions — with the threat of demotion or work termination, for example — on Thursday in Philadelphia it appeared that the biggest obstacle to the $15 an hour wage movement was simply workers' lack of familiarity with it.

That, nonetheless, doesn’t mean they don’t support the idea of better pay and attending protests for a raise.

“For $15 an hour, I would be so joyful to go to work,” said a smiling Alvarez, adding that  she and her coworkers make $7.25 an hour, without benefits.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Tremaine Jenkins, 30, a colleague of Alvarez’s, referring to the idea of a $15 an hour minimum wage. He also said would have attended the rally, had he known.

Fast food workers are allowed to take off a shift for a labor action, according to Fight for Philly, a grassroots organization that helped organize Thursday's protests. The organization provided “strike notices” to employers ahead of protests, which the group said allowed employees to demonstrate without fear of retaliation.

Jenkins, who lives across the Delaware River in Pittman, New Jersey, said he spends five dollars on a bridge toll every time he comes to work, almost an hour’s pay after taxes. He said he gets about 35 hours of work a week at KFC, his only job. During the six years he has worked at KFC, he has received one raise, for 10 cents.

But employer intimidation tactics may have also played a role in limiting participation in Thursday’s rallies. Next door to the KFC, at a Checkers restaurant, an employee speaking through an intercom behind thick clear plastic said “I don’t want to talk about this” when asked what she thought about the push for better wages.

Jesse Kudler, an organizer with Fight for Philly, which helped arrange Thursday’s rally, said some fast food workers express more reluctance to join protests.

My rent’s about average and it takes up almost a whole paycheck. Factor in utilities and feeding yourself and you don’t have a ton of wiggle room left at the end of the month.

Jane Gagliard

Starbucks supervisor

“A lot of workers are scared they could face hour cuts,” said Kudler. “People are scared to stand up for themelves.” But others, said Kudler, are emboldened when they see their co-workers attend protests.

“Many people say they were just at their wit’s end,” said Kudler said, adding that they have “nothing left to lose.”

At a Chipotle restaurant on Walnut Street along the marchers' route, and home to upscale retail stores, Jesus Mendoza, 19, was also unaware of the minimum wage movement, and he expressed skepticism about its goals.

“That would be great, but it doesn’t seem possible,” said Mendoza. “I’m pretty content here.” He said he earns $9 an hour, but could see a raise to $11.

At a nearby Starbucks, workers said they appreciated the health and education benefits the company offers for full time workers. But they said their wages, even with tips, don’t keep up with the cost of living.

“I make just shy of $10 and hour as a supervisor. Baristas start at $7.60. Performance-based reviews get you a few cents extra every six months,” said Jane Gagliard, 23.

The baristas didn’t know about the minimum wage protest until it passed by their door. 

Gagliard stressed that Starbucks treats its employees better than a lot of companies, but that “the wages are similar everywhere.”

“My rent’s about average and it takes up almost a whole paycheck,” said Gagliard. “Factor in utilities and feeding yourself and you don’t have a ton of wiggle room left at the end of the month.”

One worker said she relies on Starbuck’s leftovers for food. An unpredictable schedule also means it’s hard for them to get a second job. All four employees on shift agreed that $15 would really help.

“Two weeks with forty hours each, and it all goes to bills,” said barista Jose Gonzalez.

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Minimum Wage

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