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OPINION - McDonalds: something right, something wrong

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) McDonalds, the 700-pound gorilla in the fast-food industry, has been in the news for some bad employee-relations coverage. It is doing one thing wrong and one thing right, and being criticized for both.

First, what’s wrong: Some McDonalds franchises are paying their employees with pre-paid debit cards. This is wrong, and should be stopped. Many debit cards have all kinds of fees – ATM fees, balance inquiry fees, service charges, etc – and workers shouldn’t have to pay to access the money they’ve already earned. The proper way to pay workers is with cash, a check, or a direct deposit into the workers’ accounts.

McDonalds has taken a lot of unfair criticism for a personal budgeting and finance booklet they’ve given to their workers. It includes some basic examples of how to manage your money. It uses an example of a hypothetical McDonalds employee who works part-time earning $8.50 an hour and has a second part-time job somewhere else.

I applaud McDonalds for teaching their (mostly young, inexperienced) workers something about living within their means. Having a budget and sticking to it is much more important for people with little money than for people with a lot. Obviously these jobs are not intended to be full-time family-supporting jobs; they’re intended for teenagers and retirees who are looking for extra money. Hamburger-flipping fast-food work is intended to support a family, and that fact doesn’t change just because the economy is lousy. Much of the criticism is that people can’t live on the two-part-time-job $25,000 a year income that McDonalds hypothesizes. The correct answer is ‘maybe’. If partying, drinking, big credit card payments, expensive vacations, etc are part of your lifestyle – you’ll run out of cash. But if you live your life frugally and responsibly, the assumptions are reasonable.

Let’s consider the McDonald’s suggested budget. Rent: $600. Reasonable for a two-bedroom apartment in Wausau. In a larger city like Chicago, you’ll probably need a roommate. Car payment: $150. Yes, you won’t have a new Lexus, but you could buy a $5,000 used car with a three-year loan. There are many such cars available in the classifieds. Phone and cable: $100. Do-able, with a basic cell plan and basic cable. There is one number that is suspiciously low: $20 for health care, which assumes a Badgercare-type co-payment for a Medicare-subsidized plan. Still, this plan assumes $100 a month in miscellaneous expenses, $100 in savings, and spending money of $750 each month. Your groceries or eating-out and gasoline comes out of that spending money.

There’s no reason to criticize this proposed budget. If a low-wage worker had the personal discipline to follow it, they’d have $1,200 in their savings account at the end of the year and would still have about $25 a day to spend on themselves. You’d be doing much better than many people.

People who live on the McDonalds budget might decide that they’re tired of just scraping by. That’s actually a very good lesson. They’ll be motivated to find a better, higher paying job for themselves. McDonalds doesn’t expect their crew members to work there long term. Someone who has the discipline to be a good employee and stick to a budget has the skills to move up.

Some web sites that have criticized the McDonald’s budget have found actual employees who can’t make ends meet. A 32-year-old single mom said that 40-hours a week at her Mc-Job wasn’t enough to pay for daycare for her four kids and to make her credit card payments. My question to her is simple: “Why should your employer pay more for your life choices?”  The web site that criticizes the McDonalds plan advocates paying workers $15-an-hour.

Chris Conley