Jim Kenyon: Having It Their Way on the Fast-Food Strip

Sunday, February 14, 2016
Last Sunday morning, the doors of the Burger King on Route 12A in West Lebanon were locked and a sign was taped to the front door: “Due to a lack of staff we are closed for breakfast today. May be open for lunch.”

Not that I have anything against Whoppers and chicken fries, but I took this to be a good sign. Let me explain.

Perhaps it signals that the Upper Valley labor market has improved to the point where people don’t have to settle for jobs that pay only marginally above New Hampshire’s $7.25 an hour minimum wage.

And with President-to-be Bernie Sanders (call me an optimist) proposing to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, it might not be long before fast-food workers are earning enough to keep their heads above the fryolator.

From New York to Seattle, state and local measures have passed that gradually raise the hourly minimum wage to $15. A labor union-fueled organization called Fight for $15 is getting behind fast-food workers nationally.

“Low-wage jobs are the fastest growing jobs in the nation, and they need to pay more so that workers like us can make ends meet,” goes the argument stated on the Fight for $15 website. Tens of millions of workers across the country don’t make $15 an hour.

Driving past Wendy’s on 12A the other day, I almost dropped my Baconator when I saw a large sign announcing the restaurant was “Now Hiring 15 and Up.”

False alarm.

The sign referred to age, not wage. Wendy’s starting pay still is about $9 an hour. Across the street, McDonald’s has put up signs advertising shifts “starting out at $10 an hour.”

I guess that’s progress.

Burger King’s temporary closing — I’m told that it wasn’t the first time — would seem to indicate that West Lebanon’s fast-food workers are gaining a bit of bargaining power, at least in the short term.

According to the most recent New Hampshire labor statistics, Lebanon’s unemployment rate was down to 2.1 percent. The statewide average is 2.9 percent.

“Any time you get under 4 percent, employers will have problems finding people,” Paul Wolfson, a senior researcher at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, told me.

I figured Wolfson was the guy to ask about low-wage jobs. He’s the co-author of the 2014 book What Does the Minimum Wage Do? that won Princeton University’s William G. Bowen Award, given to the year’s outstanding book on labor and public policy.

“Assuming you’re not the manager or owner” of a business that doesn’t pay well, low unemployment is a sign of a healthy economy, Wolfson said. “They want to be able to sell their products, but in good times they can’t find people to staff their businesses at the wages they are willing to pay.”

Nationally, fast-food chains have more to worry about than just Bernie Sanders moving into the White House. They have long gotten away with paying low wages because they relied largely on teenagers to flip burgers.

Wolfson pointed me to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics chart. As recently as the early 2000s, 45 percent of teens (ages 16 to 19) were either working or looking for work. In the last few years, it’s fallen below 30 percent.

There doesn’t seem to be any single reason , although there’s a sense that more college-track teens are looking to build their resumes through unpaid internships and volunteer jobs. Or they’re just too busy playing video games and texting. Then again, they may just be smarter than their parents and figured out better ways to spend their spare time than toiling away at low-paying jobs.

Whatever the reason, “working teenagers are rapidly disappearing,” The Wall Street Journal wrote last April. “Part of that is due to lower demand for their labor, but the trend was strong even before the 2008 economic crash.”

I called the corporate offices for Route 12A’s Big Three — Burger King, McDonald’s and Wendy’s — to get their take on the labor shortage and how they’re planning to address it.

Higher wages, perhaps?

No one’s talking. At least not at the corporate level. None of the three are locally owned. Which makes me wonder about the future of 12A’s restaurants.

As long as the unemployment rate stays low, they will be faced with having to pay more competitive wages. I suppose there is an alternative. They could go the route of Pizza Hut and Friendly’s, which have both closed on 12A in the last 16 months.

I wanted to ask Burger King about that. But it’s not easy to find someone in charge. The restaurant’s manager wasn’t willing to talk. The most I could get was an email address for a company called Northeast Foods.

A search of public records turned up a company by that name in Quincy, Mass. In the company’s 2014 annual report filed with the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s Office, no phone number was listed.

The name listed at the bottom of the document was Shoukat Dhanani, of Sugarland, Texas. More research showed that Dhanani was the chief executive officer of Houston Foods Inc., which owns about 200 Burger King restaurants in Texas and New England.

I left a message on Dhanani’s voicemail. I didn’t hear back.

That’s unfortunate. I wanted to ask him if his Burger King on 12A was going to be open today.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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