Economy

These Are the Fast Food Chains that Treat Their Workers the Best (And Worst)

Earlier this week, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer slapped fast food giant Carl's Jr. with nearly $1.5 million in fines and restitution, alleging the burger chain underpaid minimum wage-earning employees at multiple locations last year, CNN Money reports.

Wage theft is defined as the intentional underpaying of employees through failure to pay overtime, paying less than minimum wage, employee misclassification, illegal deductions, forced working off the clock, or simply not paying.

The issue of wage theft became a major part of why Carl's Jr. CEO Andy Puzder withdrew his nomination for Labor Secretary under President Trump. And Carl's Jr. is far from the only fast food chain to engage in the practice. Employees at Chipotle, Papa John's, Jimmy John's, and McDonalds have all filed suit for wage theft in just the last few years—all victims of a problem that as many as nine out of ten fast food workers claim to have experienced.

Beyond that, the world of fast food is infamous for its low wages, lack of promotion, stingy benefits, long hours, and discrimination. An extensive report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance found that 86.5 percent of workers along the entire chain of food production and sales don't earn a livable wage, 79 percent get no sick time, and 58 percent don't have health insurance.

If so many fast food chains have been accused of financial improprieties and low pay, are any actually good to the people they employ? According to various surveys and employee reviews on sites like Glassdoor and Indeed, a few fast food chains are notably better to work for, with one standing above the rest: the iconic West Coast burger chain In-N-Out Burger.

The beloved burgers-only chain has the highest salary of any major restaurant chain in the United States, starting even the lowest level employee at $11 per hour, even in states with a minimum wage far below that. It also offers extensive health, vision, and dental benefits to both full and part-time employees, along with paid vacation and sick time; and ready opportunities for promotion. Because of that, In-N-Out hiring is so competitive that even to get an interview usually requires a referral from a current employee.

Unfortunately, In-n-Out is primarily a California company, with just a few locations in other states. In fact, it's local chains that tend to offer the highest salaries and best benefits, with Boston's Boloco and Detroit's Moo Cluck Moo also being singled out for their competitive compensation and employee treatment.

As far as national chains, one of In-N-Out's major competitors in terms of product and quality is Five Guys, and that's also considered an excellent chain to work for. Five Guys offers a starting salary of close to $9 per hour, comprehensive benefits, and employees at stores that perform well on quality control audits are given cash bonuses.

Though nobody can touch In-N-Out when it comes to starting salary, Panda Express is close, with a starting salary over $9 per hour, to go with comprehensive benefits and an employee retirement plan.

And despite its wage theft lawsuits, Chipotle also gets high marks for how it treats employees. The company offer a competitive starting wage of about $9 per hour, and in 2015, made tuition reimbursements, sick time, and two weeks of paid vacation available to both salaried and hourly employees, even those in their first year. It's also highly-regarded for promoting managers from within.

After that, though, it starts to get grim.

The workers advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United produces an annual guide to the food chains that treat their employees the worst. In their most recent Diners Guide, a grand total of two places recognized by the National Restaurant Group as the highest grossing met their criteria for wages, paid time off, and upward mobility. One was Costco, the national warehouse chain that, while it serves food, is not actually a restaurant. The other was In-N-Out Burger.

The largest fast food chain in the world, McDonalds, does offer a small tuition assistance benefit to employees, which they highlighted in a recent ad campaign. However, it doesn't become available until after a year of employment. Still, that doesn't make up for the slew of wage violations and fines the company is hit with every year, the most of any major chain. The golden arches were also criticized for offering salaries so low that even its own internal documents found it was literally impossible to survive on a part-time wage.

 

Meanwhile, Burger King's founder has decried the fight for higher wages at fast food restaurants, while one employee told the Huffington Post that he made just $14,000 for a nearly full-time position, with no benefits or paid time off.

And a Bloomberg BNA report found that among chains with the highest number of wage violations, fast food dominated, with Sonic, Little Caesars, and Chik-Fil-A all in the top five for fines per restaurant. Some of these offer better pay and benefits than others, but none are immune from wage theft.

The upshot is that until the fast food industry collectively agrees to emulate the practices of a few standouts, diners who want to ensure the employees who make their fast food meal are treated well don't have many options if they don't live near an In-N-Out.