California’s New $20 Fast Food Minimum Wage May Backfire

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California’s decision to raise the minimum wage to $20 an hour for fast-food workers might seem like a step forward, but it’s causing quite a stir. 

Will California’s Wage Policy Backfire?

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Known for its high living costs and taxes, this state has a history of ambitious policies that often backfire. The latest hike in minimum wage is likely to continue this trend, leading to job cuts and steeper prices across the board.

New Wage Laws Boost Fast-Food Prices

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A new law mandates a minimum wage increase to $20 per hour for fast-food workers, prompting chains like McDonald’s, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and Jack in the Box to hike their menu prices to offset the higher wages.

The New Benchmark

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This law positions fast-food workers in California at the top of the pay scale in their industry, far surpassing the state’s general minimum wage of $15.50 per hour. 

To fall under this mandate, a fast-food chain must operate at least 60 locations nationwide, except for places like Panera Bread, which are exempt due to making and selling their own bread.

The Ripple Effects of Wage Increases


This move could add to the state’s reputation for unaffordable living, as many residents already find themselves burdened by hefty utility bills driven by California’s push for “green” energy. 

Higher Wages Are Hurting Middle Class


Rather than reevaluating these costly mandates, the state has introduced additional charges on utility bills, further straining the budgets of middle-class households. 

The impact of these combined pressures could hasten the exodus of those seeking relief from the state’s escalating costs.

The High Cost of Living in California


Sacramento’s trio of overtaxing, overspending, and overregulating has sculpted California into a challenging state for many residents, resulting in a net loss of 1.2 million people over the past three years—a steeper decline than any other state, even surpassing New York by 35%.

Good Intentions, Possibly Poor Outcomes

While the intentions behind raising the minimum wage in California might be to balance income disparities, the outcome tells a different story. 

This latest law aimed at ensuring fast-food workers receive a “living wage” has inadvertently showcased a classic case of good intentions failing in practice. 

Can Businesses Afford California’s Wage Hike?

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Branded as a move against corporate greed, the reality is that businesses operate on thin margins. With added labor costs at $20 per hour, many employers find the math doesn’t add up, as the value produced by workers at this wage does not align with the economic burden placed on businesses. 

This often results in fewer jobs or higher prices, or both, echoing the residents’ growing frustration with state policies that look good on paper but falter in execution.

Hiring Freezes


In response to California’s latest minimum wage increase, fast-food companies across the state are putting a freeze on hiring, with some even announcing significant layoffs. 

This is a significant shift for an industry that employs around half a million workers in the state—a number that’s starting to dwindle.

California’s Drive Towards Automated Restaurants

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As labor costs rise, major players like McDonald’s are shifting their investments toward automation. Last year, McDonald’s invested millions in developing its first fully automated restaurant. 

Similarly, Jack in the Box and El Pollo Loco are moving towards robotics to handle cooking and cashier tasks. 

Survival Strategies


This pivot to technology is more of a survival strategy in the face of escalating labor costs, which include higher wages and training expenses, payroll taxes, and legal risks. 

As these companies adapt by reducing their reliance on human labor, the landscape of fast-food employment in California is poised for a dramatic transformation.

Outsourcing Fast-Food Jobs

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In areas where automation isn’t feasible, fast-food jobs are being outsourced. This trend is exemplified by the impending layoffs of around 1,100 Pizza Hut delivery drivers, with similar cuts at Round Table Pizza. 

Customers now increasingly rely on delivery apps—which are themselves under scrutiny due to California’s Assembly Bill 40—or must pick up their orders in person.

Wage Hikes Ripple Across All Businesses

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The ripple effects of this wage increase are not confined to large chains. Small business owners, like Brady Farmer of Chef Bradley Cook’s Catering, warn that consumers will feel the impact across the board—even tater tots will cost more. 

Small Businesses Wrestle with Wage Hikes


Small business owners are grappling with the implications of California’s minimum wage increase, even if they’re not legally required to raise wages. One such owner, passionate about retaining his staff, pointed out the additional costs that come with higher wages. 

He highlighted the significant expenses involved in managing all aspects of a business, from shopping to transportation, which can add up to an extra $20 to $200 a day. 

Struggling with Inflation


Kim Phan, co-owner of Crab Hut since 2007, reflects on the rapid rise in living costs. She noted that the cost of living is rising too quickly for businesses to keep up. 

When Crab Hut opened, a pound of crawfish was priced at $8.99, but this year it’s around $23 to $24, depending on the season.

No Real Winners


Phan emphasizes that the ongoing minimum wage hikes are a futile race against inflation, where ultimately nobody wins. 

She urges consideration of the bigger picture, pointing out that despite consistent wage increases over the years, they haven’t truly benefited anyone. 

Are Layoff Threats Overstated?


Some argue that corporations are exaggerating the impact and won’t actually proceed with massive layoffs. 

However, this perspective often overlooks the practical realities of running a business, such as managing payroll or employing minimum-wage workers—experiences many policymakers lack. 

Unintended Consequences


Unfortunately, the disconnect between political decisions and their real-world effects means policies intended to secure votes might end up harming those they aim to help, not just once but repeatedly.

The Double Blow 

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In addition to the job cuts, raising the minimum wage to $20 an hour also drives up prices. This hits hardest at lower-income individuals, who are frequent patrons of fast-food outlets and are now facing the double blow of increased costs and job scarcity.

Tough Choices 

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Essentially, setting the minimum wage at $20 acts as a prohibition on any job that pays less, pushing Californians into tough choices: relocate to states with more lenient wage laws, earn money through unregulated “under the table” jobs, or depend on welfare.

Rising Costs Could Drive Residents Away


As operating costs climb, the state might see an acceleration in the rate of residents moving elsewhere, especially as lower-income earners find themselves squeezed by rising costs and wage mandates. 

This could leave a demographic shift toward those dependent on state welfare, challenging California’s economic sustainability.

What’s Next for Fast-Food Workers’ Wages?

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Adding to the complexity, the new legislation includes the formation of a Fast-Food Council, which has the authority to further increase the minimum wage for fast-food workers by up to 3.5% annually. 

This could potentially lead to a future where fast-food jobs are unsustainable, pushing the sector toward full automation or significant downsizing.

Kate Smith, a self-proclaimed word nerd who relishes the power of language to inform, entertain, and inspire. Kate's passion for sharing knowledge and sparking meaningful conversations fuels her every word.