The reopening phase of the pandemic is long underway in most parts of the country, but fast-food operators are still struggling to find enough workers to staff their restaurants. In the face of a labor shortage — which is actually just a shortage of jobs that pay well — fast-food restaurants like Jimmy John’s and Chipotle have offered potential employees a number of different incentives, like signing bonuses and free college tuition, to join their ranks. Most recently, McDonald’s announced that it could offer emergency childcare benefits to entice workers to apply.
Affordable childcare is difficult to find in the U.S., a reality that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic, with more than half of working parents saying they’ve struggled with childcare responsibilities during COVID. A recent survey of American workers conducted by McKinsey found that 16 percent of the workforce in the U.S. is dependent on childcare in order to work, and that it was among the most common barriers to finding work. According to the survey, fewer than 40 percent of workers with a household income below $50,000 said they were able to access affordable childcare.
The crisis is more acute for women, especially women of color: 40 percent of mothers — versus 27 percent of fathers — report adding 15 hours of caregiving to their weekly schedule, with the burden falling heaviest on the shoulders of Black, Hispanic, and Latina mothers, according to the McKinsey survey. This isn’t particularly shocking — there are many reasons we don’t have comprehensive childcare in this country, and most of them are rooted in patriarchy, racism, or some combination of the two — but it’s no less devastating. And it’s no less unconscionable.
As a direct result, women have dropped out of the U.S. labor force more rapidly than men throughout the pandemic. Nearly 900,000 women left the workforce in September 2020 alone, quadrupling the number of men who did so. Improving access and affordability in childcare isn’t just a capital L labor issue, it’s an intersectional inequity that includes gender and race. (Of course, improving pay for childcare workers — many of whom are Black women and other women of color whose labor allows wealthier white women to enter the professional workforce, where better paying jobs await — is critical as well.)
Business Insider also reports that McDonald’s could offer workers a number of other benefits, including eldercare, wage and benefits workshops, and tuition assistance, in an effort to stimulate hiring. Last year, McDonald’s franchisees polled thousands of workers to evaluate how they could improve compensation, and found that enhanced flexibility, job training, and better wages topped the list. It’s now up to individual franchisees to decide whether or not to offer the improved compensation packages, a decision they have till the end of the year to make.
Fast-food workers have been on the front lines of the pandemic since it first broke out more than a year ago, and they’ve also been working on the front lines of labor advocacy. A key moment in the Fight for $15 occurred in November 2012 when hundreds of fast-food workers in New York City went on strike to demand better wages and the recognition of a union called the Fast Food Workers Committee.
In less than a decade, a coalition of fast-food workers and low-wage workers from a number of other sectors have forced legislators in a number of cities and states to institute $15 minimum wage laws. Now they’re leveraging their collective bargaining power in the face of a labor shortage to force individual companies into offering better compensation packages.
Free tuition, higher wages, and emergency childcare benefits are a good starting point, and we owe fast-food workers a debt of gratitude for doing the leg work to get here. But if we want to help workers long term — especially women, and especially Black women and other women of color — then we have to make childcare benefits a right, not an emergency privilege.