Food Workers Demand Better Pay

The median wage for food workers sits around $9.65 per hour, and about 10 million workers earn wages that put a family of three below the poverty line.

José JoJo Gonzales is a 29-year-old fourth-generation Mexican American and father of a five-year-old little girl. He works at Taylor Farms, the largest processor and packager of fresh salads in the world with almost $2 billion in annual revenue. Their big clients include Darden Restaurants, (owner of Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and other restaurant chains), Walmart, McDonald's, Costco, and Trader Joe's.

Gonzales works at the Taylor Farms facility in Tracy, Calif., a Central Valley community about an hour south of Sacramento. Just like a growing number of workers in the food system and about a third of the 900 workers at Taylor's Tracy plant, José is officially employed by a temporary staffing agency, even though he has been working full-time for eight months. He works in the pasta room where he and his co-workers cook all the pasta for prepared salads that are put together in other areas of the plant. He is paid $8 per hour, the state's minimum wage.

"It's hard to survive off $8 an hour," Gonzales says. "It almost makes it impossible. I'm using all my money to pay other people."

Unfortunately, Gonzales' experience is not unusual. José is one of the almost 20 million people working in the domestic food system and millions more performing similar work around the world. In the United States, these 20 million include workers in the five major sectors of the food chain--farms and fisheries; food, meat and poultry processing; warehouse and distribution workers; grocery; and restaurant and food service. Together, these workers make the collective domestic food industry the largest employer in the country.

The vast majority of those employed in our food system--86 percent--are front-line workers. Just over half, 53.2 percent, are men, while 46.8 percent are women, according to government data. A third are young workers aged 16-24, while forty 40 percent are 25-44 years old and 23.9 percent are 45-64. Two-thirds Over 40 percent of food system workers are people of color, with Latinos representing 23.9 percent of the labor force, African-Americans 10.4 percent, and Asians 5.5 percent. One-quarter of U.S. food system workers were also born outside of the U.S.

Overall, the median wage for food workers sits around $9.65 per hour, according to a survey of over 600 laborers conducted by the Food Chain Workers Alliance. Government data shows , more than half (10 million workers) earn wages that put a family of three below the poverty line. Over a third of food workers, like José, earn less than $10.10 per hour. These extremely low wages result in food workers suffering food insecurity, or the inability to afford enough to eat, at 1.2 times the rate of the general workforce and using SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) at 1.5 times the rate of all U.S. workers.

This is why raising the minimum wage is so crucial for food workers and for the economy overall. Millions of food workers and their families would benefit. The current bills in Congress seek to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 and the subminimum wage--the pay rate guaranteed for tipped workers--from $2.13 to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage. A full 26.6 million would directly benefit if this bill proposal became law. An additional five million workers would indirectly benefit as they earn wages close to $10.10 and they would most likely receive a small bump in pay due to the change.

Powerful opponents, however, argue against raising the minimum wage. They include the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association, and the billionaire Koch brothers. They say that raising the minimum wage hurts small businesses and will make food and other goods and services too expensive.

You shouldn't be surprised to find out that they're wrong. The three largest minimum-wage employers in the U.S. are food companies: Walmart, Yum! Brands (owner of Pizza Hut and Taco Bell) and McDonald's. In fact, 66 percent of low-wage workers are employed by corporations with more than 100 employees, not small businesses.

Additionally, an analysis that we conducted with the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) found the cost to consumers would be minimal. If employers were to pass the entire cost of increasing the minimum wage along to consumers, the average household would pay a dime a day extra for food. And that 10-cent increase represents an extreme estimate. Employers would not be required to pass along the entire cost.

The bills in Congress to raise the minimum wage won't pass this year. Speaker John Boehner so far refuses to allow a vote on the bill, the Fair Minimum Wage Act, languishing in the House of Representatives. On April 30, Republicans voted against ending a procedural filibuster on its version, the Minimum Wage Fairness Act, to allow a floor vote.

So, much energy is now focused at the local and state levels. Last year, New Jersey voters passed a constitutional amendment to raise the state's minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $8.25 this year, with annual increases tied to the Consumer Price Index.

Crescenciano José Sanchez works at a tomato packing plant in New Jersey. As a member of the Farmworker Support Committee, Sanchez joined the campaign to pass this amendment, speaking to the media and writing letters to the editor. His reasoning is clear: "I know how hard it is for people to live on such low pay. $7.25 is not enough."

This year, Connecticut, Maryland, and Minnesota passed legislation to increase their state minimum wages. Unfortunately, Connecticut and Maryland still have a lower minimum wage for tipped workers, but Minnesota doesn't. And at the beginning of May, Seattle's mayor announced a phase-in plan to raise the minimum wage there to $15. About 40 other cities and states are also considering increases.

In addition to legislative efforts, workers around the country are also organizing to force their employers to pay a wage higher than the minimum wage. Gonzales, the Taylor Farms worker in Tracy, Calif., is a leader in an organizing campaign with the Teamsters Local 601, joining the effort soon after he started working at the Taylor plant eight months ago. The Teamsters report that the majority of Taylor Farms workers earn the minimum wage of $8 per hour, just like Gonzales.

"This company takes advantage of the workers, even though they're making millions and millions of dollars. That's why I got involved," he said.

The Teamsters and my organization, The Food Chain Alliance, have watched Taylor Farms' response. We believe the company has responded by firing workers who support the union, threatening immigrant workers with deportation and cutting hours and jobs. But Gonzales and his co-workers aren't giving up.

The tide is turning. Polls released by the Pew Research Center in February and National Employment Law Project in March show that the American public and small businesses support raising the minimum wage. Legislative efforts and ballot initiatives are springing up around the country, and workers like Gonzales and others at Taylor Farms, Walmart, fast food restaurants, and many other companies are organizing.

Just yesterday, thousands of food service workers in 230 cities around the world stood up for their right to organize, to demand better pay and better work conditions. It's an exciting time in the movement to raise the minimum wage!

Joann Lo is the Executive Director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a national coalition of worker organizations whose members plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve, and sell food.

UPDATE: This piece has been updated to include the number of cities in which food industry workers demonstrated in support of higher wages and better working conditions. Initial reports indicated that workers rallied and protested in just 150 cities around the globe.


The Next America welcomes op-ed pieces that explore the political, economic and social impacts of the profound racial and cultural changes facing our nation, particularly relevant to education, economy, the workforce and health. Email Janell Ross at Please follow us on Twitter and Facebook.