By Elizabeth Dilts
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Fast-food workers in hundreds of U.S. cities staged a day of rallies on Thursday to demand higher wages, saying the pay was too low to feed a family and forced most to accept public assistance.
The protests escalated a series of actions at several Walmart stores on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, seeking to draw attention to workers at the lowest end of the wage scale.
The description of fast-food workers, once viewed mainly as teenagers looking for pocket money or a first job, has changed. Today's fast-food worker is typically over 20, often raising a child, and 68 percent are the primary wage earners in their families, according to a report by the University of Illinois and the University of California, Berkeley.
About 100 workers in Chicago marched along Michigan Avenue with a large costumed Grinch, chanting: "We can't survive on $7.25." Protesters want the hourly U.S. minimum wage raised to $15 from $7.25.
In Kansas City, Missouri, Kizzy Sanders, 30, an employee at a local Popeye's restaurant, joined about 100 protesters picketing fast-food restaurants in freezing temperatures.
"I love my job, I love the people I work with, but the $7.70 I make does not cut it," said Sanders, a mother of three. "It doesn't pay my bills, I can't buy my kids anything for Christmas. I can't even celebrate Christmas."
Thursday's protests were organized by groups such as "Fast Food Forward" and "Low Pay is Not OK" that have the support of labor union giant Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 2 million members including healthcare, janitorial and security workers.
Despite the involvement of organized labor, the protests are focused on wages, not unions, for the moment, said John Logan, a labor studies professor at San Francisco State University's College of Business.
"The immediate goal is to focus national attention on the impact of poverty-level wages on employees and the negative impact of poverty-level wages for the public and the economy," Logan said.
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau and public benefit programs show 52 percent of fast-food workers relying on at least one form of public assistance, between 2007 and 2011, according to the report from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Illinois.
Shemethia Betler, a 33-year-old mother and cashier at a Washington-area McDonald's who earns $8.25 an hour, receives food stamps and temporary cash assistance, and said she feels like she is on the brink of homelessness.
"I'm worker and I'm making 8.25 an hour, and I have two kids and I'm living in poverty," Betler said during a protest in Washington.
Because the current minimum wage, on an inflation-adjusted basis, lags behind those of decades past, the purchasing power of minimum-wage earners has diminished.
Increasing the minimum wage, however, would not reduce poverty, said Michael Saltsman of the Employment Policies Institute, because employers will compensate by reducing staff and workers' hours.
Instead, they should expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides a small-wage supplement for low-income families in the form of a tax refund, he said.
A 2012 study published by the Employment Policies Institute found that states that increase the Earned Income Tax Credit by 1 percent saw a 1 percent drop in state poverty rates.
Others disagree. Christian Dorsey, director of external and governmental affairs for the Economic Policy Institute, said tax credits should not let employers skimp on wages.
"Businesses have a responsibility to pay workers enough to keep them out of poverty," Dorsey said. "The idea that we would simply not look at wages is passing off the problem to someone else."
Jose Martinez, 26, a KFC cook who joined about 100 protesters outside a McDonald's in Oakland, California, said he still lived with his parents and recently dropped out of welding school because he could not afford the tuition. He said his job paid $8.25 an hour.
"If I made $15 an hour, I would support my parents, move out and go back to school," Martinez said.
(Additional reporting by Marina Lopes, Mary Wisniewski, Colleen Jenkins, Kevin Murphy, Carlyn Kolker and Laila Kearney; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Gunna Dickson)