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Originally published May 30, 2013 at 9:44 PM | Page modified May 31, 2013 at 3:34 PM

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Fast-food workers demonstrate for better pay

A group of fast-food workers walked off their jobs in Seattle Wednesday night and Thursday demanding pay of $15 an hour.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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A handful of national fast-food places in Seattle had to close for at least a few hours Wednesday night and Thursday after employees walked off the job.

Their demand, as stated on their Facebook page, Good Jobs Seattle, was simple: “I make $15/hr or less and am worth more.”

Caroline Durocher, 21, walked out of her job at the Ballard Taco Bell Wednesday night and an hour later the place was closed down.

“It was an easy decision,” she said. “I’ve been working hard at minimum-wage jobs for six years and I have nothing to show for it.”

“Sometimes I don’t even have bus fare to get to work.”

Durocher said the work is not easy, and employees have little control over their schedules.

“It’s exhausting and demeaning,” she said.

Another food-service employee from Portland, who declined to give his full name, said you know the pay is bad when managers of higher-paid employees use the threat of fast-food wages to intimidate.

“They’ll say ‘If you don’t like it, you can go work at McDonald’s.’ ”

Similar walkouts have taken place in New York, Chicago, St. Louis and Milwaukee.

By Thursday afternoon in Seattle, the franchises that had been targeted were back in operation.

“We’re open. You can get a burger,” said a man who identified himself as the manager for the Burger King in Lake City, but would not provide his name.

About 200 supporters of the strike gathered at Denny Park on Thursday afternoon.

They heard from several employees who had walked off their jobs and labor leader David Rolf, of the Service Employees International Union, who urged workers to hold fast. He said that seven out of the10 fastest growing jobs in the state are minimum-wage jobs and that if workers don’t hold together and draw the line, the middle class will disappear.

Accompanied by drums, chanting and the honks of supportive passing motorists, the group then marched to several nearby fast-food restaurants where they tried with mixed success to talk employees into walking out and shutting restaurants down.

At Taco Del Mar near Fifth Avenue North and Cedar Street, striking fast-food employees were unable to talk the sole worker into leaving his station. “This puts me in a hard situation,” he said.

But just a minutes later at a Subway at Fifth Avenue North and Denny Way, Sofia Garcia was persuaded.

The crowd shouted, “Walk out, we’ve got your back” and cheered when she turned out the lights, closed the door and locked it behind her as she walked out.

With Garcia at the lead, the group then walked to a nearby McDonald’s and entered the restaurant en masse but did not succeed in closing it down.

Will Pittz, executive director of the Washington Community Action Network, which helped organize the strike, said he didn’t know how many fast-food employees had walked out, but said it was a sizable number.

Pittz said he believed the strike was “resonating” with the general public, despite the sometimes-negative comments on news sites.

He said, “I know we were getting a lot of honking and waving from passers-by. Everyone knows someone who works in the fast-food industry.”

Right now, at $9.19 an hour, Washington state has the highest minimum wage in the country.

And, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 the mean wage for cooks at fast-food joints in this state was $10.22 an hour, fourth-highest in the country (Connecticut topped the list, at $12 an hour).

Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Restaurant Association, which represents over 5,000 big and small-eating establishments, said his group “supports the right to free speech.”

But, he said, “lost in the conversation” is that restaurants here “already have the highest labor costs in the country” at 36 percent of sales, in contrast to 33 percent nationwide.

He said that matters a lot in an industry with a 4 percent margin of profit.

What has happened, said Anton, is that restaurants here already have cut back on hires, averaging 14 employees per restaurant, as opposed to 17 nationally.

In an email, Burger King headquarters said, “For decades, Burger King restaurants have provided an entry point into the workforce for millions of Americans, including many of the system’s franchisees who began their careers working at local Burger King restaurants.”

To the industry comments, Pittz responded, “This is a hugely profitable industry. Over and over again, you see the restaurant association defending the interests of the very top of the industry. We’re talking about the people who’re doing the work, who’re actually making it go. Those folks are not earning wages that meet their basic needs.”

He said that after Thursday’s strike, the Good Jobs Seattle members “are going to meet and figure out what they’ll do next. I will say there is a lot of energy among them.”

Following the strike news was Jim Spady, vice president and son of Dick Spady, co-founder of the family-owned Dick’s Drive-Ins in this area. His burger joints were not targeted.

The six outlets start employees at $10 an hour, with merit raises increasing that to $10.50 an hour within three months. Shift managers earn up to $4 an hour over their base wage, and the company offers benefits such as 100 percent employer-paid health insurance.

“If you treat people right, in the long run, they’ll treat customers right,” he said.

Of course, Spady pointed out, “We paid off our land a long time ago, and we’re not a franchise, so we don’t to pay a franchiser fee.”

He said Dick’s offers help with college tuition, and he doesn’t expect employees to work for longer than two to four years.

“We’re the lowest rung in the economic ladder,” said Spady. “All you need to work for us is the willingness to work hard, be willing to learn and be 16. You don’t have to have a high-school diploma.

“This is not supposed to be a place where you work all your life. We encourage our employees to get a B. A., a B.S., and get a better job in an industry that pays more.”

Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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