With many chain restaurants still recovering from slumped sales during the harsh winter and overall sluggish same-store sales growth, the next issue they must weather is increased lobbying from many of the industry’s workers to secure higher hourly wages to obtain more livable earnings. The specific push is for a $15 per hour minimum wage. The McDonald’s headquarters was a recent target of workers staging protests. Workers are also now being told that certain job duties can be replaced by technology, and the use of customer self-ordering kiosks or tablets are being tested at fast casual and casual dining chains Panera Bread, Chili’s, and Applebee’s.

My first official paycheck came at the age of 16 from one of the leading quick-service restaurants in the US. My full-time earnings per week over that first summer were less than $200 (far less after tax). I spent the next four summers and college breaks there, learning how to master multi-tasking, organization, time management, doling out cheerfulness, and team work. I came home smelling like grease and sweat every day. If you were to ask me back then if the work required more than minimum wage compensation, I would have yelled “Yes” as I hastily assembled 24 hamburgers in less than 1 minute. Who doesn’t want a raise, after all. But does the work merit what would be nearly double the current minimum wage in most states? We’d call that “super-sizing” in the biz.

More than twenty years later, I’m working at CivicScience where I can easily turn to our polling and insights platform to find out what the masses think. The large majority of nearly 16,000 consumers polled by our online system over six days in late May 2014 – a whopping 85% – do not believe fast food workers deserve a $15 minimum wage. 45% believe there should be no minimum wage increase for them at all. However, 48% do believe that these workers should make more than the federal or state minimum wage.

The public is strongly opinionated on this issue too; only 6% selected the answer choice of “I don’t have an opinion.”

What do consumers think fast food workers should make as a minimum wage?

Demographically, some interesting insights surfaced that are worth noting.

Let’s start with those who don’t believe any wage increase is warranted:

  • Those with households making between $75K and $125K per year are somewhat more likely to say fast food workers should be paid the current federal or state minimum wage.
  • Men are slightly more likely than woman to say the same, particularly those aged 25 to 34.
  • 35-to-44-year-olds are the most likely age group to say there should be no increase.

Now, who are more likely to agree with a wage increase?

  • 29% say they felt an increase in the wage to $10 per hour is deserved (it should be noted that only 2 states have minimum wages over $9 per hour: Oregon and Washington).  Respondents whose highest level of education is a high school degree and also those making up to $50K per year in household income are more likely to choose the $10 per hour option.
  • And while only 3% said these workers deserve more than $15 per hour, these respondents are more likely to have advanced degrees. Women are more likely than men to select this option, as are those making more than $125K per year.
  • People living in the Western US are much more likely than those from other regions to agree to the workers deserving a $15 per hour wage. They are also more likely to select $12 per hour.

We wanted to dig deeper than just the demographic data that we have on these respondents and find out how they recently answered other questions about behaviors and attitudes on related topics:

  • Yes, it’s political: Those identifying themselves as Democrats are more likely to say the wages should be higher (and much more likely to say $15 per hour is deserved), and Republicans are more likely to say they the current minimum wage is sufficient.
  • Fast food patronage: Those who eat at fast food restaurants the most often are less likely to be in favor of those workers making more than the current minimum wage. Democrats and Republicans are fairly evenly split in their fast food patronage, except Republicans are more likely to eat at these establishments more than once per week.
  • Many got their start in this industry: Of these same total respondents who have been employed, the most common first paying job they held was in the food service industry, but interestingly this did not correlate to an opinion on wages.
  • The happiness factor: Respondents who are less happy (they answer to “How happy are you today?” with “so-so,” “unhappy,” or “very unhappy”) are more likely to be in favor of fast food worker wage increases.

Obviously there are economics to consider here: higher wages for the millions employed by the U.S. fast food restaurant industry should reduce some of the need for public aid and “safety net” benefits. However, those higher wages will need to be paid for by the employers somehow, and the most likely place for this will be in higher food costs.

In a longer-running poll question on the CivicScience network, only 17% of consumers said that low price points are what they value most when dining out. That segment of respondents in general earn lower annual incomes and are younger in age:

What do consumers value most when dining out?

But whether that means folks will be willing to pay more for their fries, sandwiches, and drinks in order to give the employees higher compensation remains to be seen. Even seemingly small price increases, such as Netflix’s plans to raise its subscription rates by $1-$2 per month, can results in consumers saying they will discontinue their patronage. (Of course, saying and doing are two different things.)

What can we learn from this? While many of us started our careers in food service, that doesn’t necessarily correlate to our beliefs in compensation. The consumer population seems to be evenly split: only three percentage points separate those who do not believe the minimum wage should increase for fast food workers and those who believe a higher minimum wage is deserved. Consumers in favor are more likely to be comfortable with a less ambitious wage increase, with the $10 per hour number being most popular of those options.


About the primary poll question: CivicScience collected 15,924 responses between May 21 the morning of May 27, 2014 to the question: “How much do you think fast food industry employees should make as their minimum wage?” Respondents were asked to choose between: The current federal or state minimum wage; $10 per hour; $12 per hour; $15 per hour; More than $15 per hour; or I don’t have an opinion. Results were weighted by U.S. census figures for gender and age, 13 years and older.