Exploration: A Raise for Low-Wage Workers

In this lesson, high school students examine the demographics of fast food and other low-wage workers, learn more about minimum wage and consider different points of view about increasing it, and explore their own opinions about minimum wage and what low-wage employees need. Time needed for lesson: 45 minutes  

To the teacher

Over the past few years, debate has grown over whether we need to raise our nation's minimum wage and the wages of fast food and other low-wage workers.  These workers and their allies have pressured companies to raise salaries through strikes, protests, and campaigns. Very recently, McDonald's and other fast food and retail employers have raised their hourly rates as a result of this outcry.  But many say these increases are too small and only impact a small percentage of the total workforce (in the case of McDonald's).

In this lesson, high school students examine the demographics of fast food and other low-wage workers, learn more about minimum wage and consider different points of view about increasing it, and explore their own opinions about minimum wage and what low-wage employees need. Time needed for lesson: 45 minutes

For more, see related TeachableMoment lessons:

Note:  Before the lesson, reflect on whether you have students in your class whose parents, or any students themselves, who work in the fast food industry or would be considered a "low wage worker." Students sometimes feel relieved to discuss a topic that is relevant to their lives, while others may feel awkward or embarrassed.  This should not preclude you discussing the topic; however, be careful not to ask or call attention to students in the class who relate to the topic on a personal level. Consider talking with students in advance if you feel it may be a sensitive subject for them.

Learning Objectives:

  • Students will reflect on their perceptions of the characteristics of fast food workers.
  • Students will learn more about the characteristics of fast food workers, minimum wage and the current movement to increase minimum wage and salaries for fast food and other low-wage employees.
  • Students will be able to calculate the theoretical income and expenses for a low-wage employee and assess whether it is a "living wage."
  • Students will explore their own perspectives about minimum wage and low-wage employees' salaries and represent that position in an argumentative essay.




Who are the fast food workers?

Explain to students that you are going to ask them to reflect on who they think are the majority of fast food employees, including some identity characteristics or demographics of that group. Have students take out a piece of paper and pen and explain that they will take notes as you read questions aloud. Tell students that for each of the questions, they should jot down their first thoughts.

Ask students: 

  • What do you think is the average age of a fast food employee or what is the age of most fast food workers? 
  • What race do you think most fast food workers are? 
  • Do you think fast food workers are mostly male or female?  How far in their formal education did they go?
  • What percentage do you think have been to college? How many hours do most fast food employees work?
  • What is their average wage per hour?

After responding to the questions, have students turn and talk to a person sitting next to them and compare their notes, taking a minute or two to share both ways. Then have students come back to the larger group and ask a few students to share aloud what they wrote down.

Share the Surprising Stats About Fast Food Workers infographic by projecting it on a smartboard or print out a copy for each student.  Engage students in a discussion by asking:

  • Does anything surprise you?
  • In what ways were your ideas about fast food workers similar to or different from what you see on the chart?
  • Where do you think you received your ideas about the characteristics of fast food workers?
  • Are these stereotypes and/or misconceptions?  Why or why not?
  • Do you think most people would be surprised or not surprised to learn this information?
  • Given the information you now have, do you think there are any special considerations for people who work in the fast food industry?

Information Sharing

  1. Ask students: Have you heard anything about McDonald's in the news recently?  If they haven't heard, explain that recently, McDonald's announced that they are offering raises of $1 an hour to their employees.  Tell students that we will discuss more about what prompted this raise later in the lesson.
  2. Ask: What is minimum wage?  If they don't know, ask them to figure it out by defining minimum (the least quantity or amount possible) and wage (money that is paid or received for work/services).  Come to a definition of minimum wage as: the lowest wage payable to employees in general or as fixed by law or union agreement.  Explain that there is a nationwide federal minimum wage, which is now $7.25 an hour and each state has its own minimum wage.  Use the Minimum Wage In Your State chart (or Minimum Wage Rates for 2015) to help students find the minimum wage for their state. In addition, in some states the minimum wage varies from one location to another within the state.
  3. Ask students: What is a "living wage"? Explain that a living wage is the income needed to meet the minimum standards of living based on the region of the country and type of community (urban, suburban, rural, etc.) in which one lives.  For more information about living wage, see Living Wage Calculator.
  4. Explain that over the past few years, there has been a lot of public conversation and activism around increasing the minimum wage and specifically, increasing wages for fast food workers and other low-wage employees.  Retail stores such as Target, Walmart, TJ Maxx, etc., have recently pledged to increase their hourly wage.  Employees say that their low salaries are not enough to live on (i.e. a "living wage") and they often have to get a second job or receive food stamps and other forms of public assistance to compensate for the low wages.
  5. Explain that in late 2012, a movement called Fast Food Forward started to organize fast food and other low-wage workers to demand higher salaries ($15/hour), join unions, and organize walkouts and protests in order to improve their rate of pay.  In addition, they filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), alleging that various restaurant managers had threatened to fire workers for striking or supporting a union. On April 15, 2015, workers organized national demonstrations and strikes to demand that wages are increased to $15 an hour.  These actions, called Fight for 15, are planned to take place in dozens of cities across the country and involve workers from a broad range of industries. (See previous lessons on these topics for more information.)
  1. Explain that companies that don't support an increased minimum wage or $15/hour argue that increasing labor costs will force them to increase the price of their products, which will be burden for  customers  - or drive customers away.  Some small business owners say that requiring them to pay a higher minimum wage will force them to hire fewer employees or even shut down.


Reading Activity

To help students learn more, have them read the following article: McDonald's Workers, Vowing a Fight, Say Raises Are Too Little for Too Few.  Give students 10 minutes to silently read the article.

After reading, engage students in a discussion by asking:

  • What did you learn that you didn't know before?
  • Can you tell what the author's point of view is?
  • How many McDonald's employees got a raise? What is the approximate percentage of the total employees who received an increase in their salary?
  • Why are workers not happy about the raise?
  • What are they going to do about it?
  • How would you feel if you were in their situation?


Math Activity: is minimum wage a living wage?

With students, determine the salary of working at McDonald's: Use the average McDonald's salary ($8.94 per hour) and the average number of hours worked (24 hours per week) to calculate the average income.

Then together, begin to calculate average living expenses for your local area, using the chart below. (You could also divide the students into small groups and they can work with different scenarios and report back.)

Note to the teacher:  This will require some advance research on your part. Cost of Living in United States may be useful.  For rent/mortgage:  the median gross rent in the United States in 2013 was $905/month (http://www.deptofnumbers.com/rent/us/)

If you don't have time or accurate information for a local and specific calculation, you can share this The Real Budgets Of McDonald's Workers with students and have them reflect on the income and expenses of the individuals they presented.










Second Job


Car Payment/Transportation (bus train)


Other Income


Insurance (car, home, etc.)




Health Insurance








Electric $ other utilities












Other (loans, childcare, child support, etc.)











After you do the calculation and/or read about those individuals, engage students in a discussion by asking:

  • Do you think a family could live on a salary from McDonald's or other fast food chains?  Why or why not?
  • How does the income salary for McDonald's compare to the 2015 Poverty Guidelines (e.g. The poverty rate for a family of 3 is $20,090 or below; see 2015 Poverty Guidelines for more details)
  • What are some ways families might increase their income or reduce their expenses to make ends meet?  (Students can cite examples from the article above.)
  • What do you think fast food companies should do about this?
  • Do you think it's important that fast food companies provide a living wage for its employees?  Why or why not?

What I think

Explain to students that now they will have an opportunity to explore their own opinions and learn about their classmates' points of view about minimum wage and fast food and other low-wage employee salaries.

Use the following five statements and post them around the room, either using chart paper (one statement per paper) or use the Opinion Statements handouts provided.  Distribute different color post-its, dots or markers for students to distinguish their point of view (e.g. green=agree; red=disagree and yellow= not sure or mixed feelings).


  • Fast food workers do not need a raise. 
  • The federal minimum wage should be at least $15 an hour.
  • If we raise the minimum wage, companies will have less jobs to offer.
  • Fast food and other low-wage workers should be able to work 40 hours per week if they want to.
  • It is not these companies' responsibility to provide a living wage for their employees.

Instruct students to move around the room to each of the five statements and using post-its, dots or markers (drawing a dot), signify what they think on each of the five statements, either agreeing (green), disagreeing (red) or not sure/mixed feelings (yellow). Give students 5-7 minutes for this task.

After students have finished marking the sheets, have them go back to their seats and engage them in a discussion by asking:

  • Was it difficult to decide what your opinion was on any of the statements?  Which ones and why?
  • What do you notice about the charts?
  • Are there are any patterns that you notice?
  • Did you change your position from what you might have thought before the lesson?
  • Would anyone like to share where they placed their mark and why?
  • What did you learn from this activity?


Writing Activity

Have students reflect on the statements and the opinions discussed above. Explain that they will now write an argumentative essay using one of the statements as a basis for their paper. They should choose the statement they feel most strongly about. This assignment can begin in class but then should be assigned for homework; it will take at least several days since it involves research.  Explain to students that they are to write an argumentative essay that argues a position and uses research, quotes, examples and data to convey their position well.

You can have students start the essay in class by having them work on the Argumentative Essay Graphic Organizer—they will complete the rest of the organizer and the paper for homework over the next days or weeks. They can use any of the articles and data shared in class as well as additional research they conduct themselves. The overall steps in the process should include:

  • Decide on your position statement
  • Consider 2-3 reasons for your position
  • Gather evidence such as examples, statistics, quotes, polls, facts, etc.
  • Organize opinion and evidence using the Argumentative Essay Graphic Organizer
  • Write your essay and include the following:

o   Description of the issue or controversy and your opinion statement (You may also include the counter-argument)

o   2-3 reasons for your opinion with supporting evidence (examples, historical information, statistics, polls, quote and facts).

o   Restate your opinion, summarize your reasons and state your call to action or summary position

As a culmination, have students present their papers in class and consider publishing them online or submit them to a local paper for the op-ed or letter to the editor sections.

Additional reading and resources

2015 Poverty Guidelines (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

Living Wage Calculator

Trying to Raise a Family On a Fast Food Salary (Reuters, August 29, 2013)

Trying to Understand the Impact of a Higher Minimum Wage on Small Businesses (New York Times, August 11, 2014)

What Do McDonald's Workers Really Make Per Hour (FiveThirtyEight, May 22, 2104)

With Day of Protests, Fast-Food Workers Seek More Pay  (New York Times, November 29, 2012)