Monique Jamison, 32, works full time at Raising Cane’s and has been working at fast-food restaurants for most of her life. During that time, she has struggled to support her son, often lived without steady housing and worked for pay rates that barely cover her bus pass and her electricity bill.
“Sometimes, it was like, okay, take care of my son, or take care of bills,” Jamison said. “Feed me and my son, or pay the electric [bill]. I’d rather feed my son, so … I had to sit there and be homeless and stay in somebody else’s house.”
And during the COVID-19 pandemic, Jamison said conditions in the fast-food industry have worsened.
“We’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off,” she said.
Kitchens are understaffed to the point where restaurants are offering larger and larger hiring and referral bonuses in order to be able to open, workers say. Jamison says she sweats in her mask in the 90 degree kitchen as the temperatures outside rise.
Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage has remained at $7.25 per hour since 2009. So Jamison, along with other St. Louis area fast-food workers, is organizing with Show Me 15—the Missouri branch of the Fight for 15 campaign—and is striking.
“Giving out bonuses is not changing anything. Trying to get your workers to refer people so they can get bonuses to get more workers in … they’re only doing that because nobody wants to work,” Jamison said.
She said her restaurant is offering $200 referral bonuses if workers find more people to recruit. Signs offering similar bonuses are all over the state, alongside indicators of worker discontent like at a temporarily-closed Jack in the Box in Arnold, MO, a sign on the door reads “So sorry for the inconvenience. But I’m currently short staffed and the crew members I do have are rebelling against me because the new hires I’ve hired made more money than them.”
On Tuesday, fast-food workers in St. Louis joined those in Asheville, North Carolina, Charlotte and Charleston in South Carolina, Detroit, Durham, Flint, Houston and Milwaukee in striking for a $15 minimum wage and a union.
In St. Louis, the marchers gathered on Lindell Boulevard, shutting down the drive-thru of a McDonald’s for 30 minutes during the lunch hour as workers yelled directly into the drive-thru order speakers “We want our money!”
Members of SEIU Local 1 were present alongside others from the Fight for $15, Jobs with Justice and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.
“Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, it’s fast-food, it’s nothing’ — well, it’s something to us,” Jamison said. “I’m not getting paid correctly for the work and effort that I put in.”
Francis Holmes, 58, spoke at the rally. She’s been working in fast-food since she was 13 years old.
“When I started working, the [Missouri] minimum wage was $3.55. It’s only gone to $10.30 now. So, you calculate how much money they didn’t give us for the past 40 years,” Homes said.
The state’s current minimum wage was increased to $10.30 an hour this year, after the passage of Proposition B. Even so, it’s estimated that a person with one child in the St. Louis area would need to make $29.81 an hour in order to provide for their family's needs — nearly three times the current minimum wage.
During the pandemic, Holmes said, she lived with her granddaughter, and worried about bringing home a deadly disease from the bus or from work.
“But I worked anyway through the pandemic, because if I didn’t, we wouldn’t have a place to live,” Holmes said.
After the morning’s strike in the drive-thru a group of workers who had been present at the earlier strike staged their own walkout at Krab Kingz in the Loop.
Nicole Rush, assistant manager at Krab Kingz, said the pay there is also low.
“We don’t have no benefits. … We don’t got no sick days, we don’t got no paid vacation. The kitchen is so hot … we don’t have no air in the kitchen,” Rush said.
The workers at Krab Kingz have not staged a walkout or a strike before, but working with organizers across the nation and other fast-food restaurants has inspired them to try.
“We need to get more respect,” Rush said. “Right now, when we try to talk to them and tell them what’s going on, they just brush us off, like we’re not important.”
She said her coworkers keep her going back to the job, though she’s thought about quitting before. “We’re gonna walk out, and close down the whole store.” And they did—the store shut down as all but one worker walked off at 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday. Potential customers, seeing a sign reading “CLOSED WORKERS ON STRIKE FOR BETTER WAGES, BENEFITS, AND RESPECT ON THE JOB” on the door of Krab Kingz, turned around and walked away.