Commuters hoping to nip into the McDonald's near Market Square for some breakfast on Wednesday were met by an unusual sight: The restaurant's front door had been blocked off by police.
Just in front of the store at the corner of Forbes Avenue and Stanwix Street, nearly 100 sign-carrying protesters had gathered, banging on bucket drums, blowing whistles and chanting in unison. Organized by the economic justice group One Pittsburgh, they had come to stand against the low wage McDonald's pays its employees -- a start to a day of protesting that would bring them to The Capital Grille Downtown, Target in East Liberty and to UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland. The protests marked the fourth anniversary of the last federal minimum wage increase to $7.25 an hour.
Instead of a cup of steaming coffee, passers-by walked away with fliers baring the Pittsburgh skyline and the legend "Raise It Up," along with complimentary muffins and breakfast sandwiches protesters were handing out to deter customers from entering the store.
"We can't survive on $7.25!" the protesters chanted.
Working full-time for minimum wage, a worker can hope to make about $15,000 in a year, without vacation or sick leave. If an employee with this salary has a child, he or she would fall $800 below the federal poverty line.
Wednesday afternoon in Galesburg, Ill., during a speech on the economy at Knox College, President Barack Obama called for an increase in the federal minimum wage: "Because it's lower right now than it was when Ronald Reagan was in office; it's time for the minimum wage to go up."
The current minimum hourly wage is $7.25. In 1980 the rate was $3.10, which would be $9.08 in inflation adjusted dollars.
Several protesters said they had been forced to take on second jobs just to stay afloat.
"A lot of the minimum wage workers are making choices between rent and food," said Chris Drumgold, a McDonald's worker from Detroit, where similar protests broke out earlier this month. He and a friend, Terrence Collins, had traveled to Pittsburgh to bolster the movement here.
Mr. Drumgold said he holds down a second job at Kmart, and at times, he has sought to put in a few extra hours at a third job. Even so, he said, "We're not able to pay the bills. We're struggling to put clothes on the backs of our kids."
McDonald's was seemingly a particularly appropriate site to hold this protest for the recent controversy surrounding an online budget-planning tool it released in conjunction with Visa for its employees. Its sample budget assumed employees worked two jobs -- which some viewed as a tacit admission that the wages it pays aren't enough to live on. Still, the budget allotted just $20 per month to health care and did not factor in costs associated with home heating or transportation.
In a written statement, McDonald's responded that "the samples that are on this site are generic examples and are intended to help provide a general outline of what an individual budget may look like."
Still, Don Thompson, McDonald's CEO, made over $4 million in 2011 -- $6,611 an hour, as several protesters pointed out.
"[The corporate executives] make what we make in a year in just a few hours," said Michael Williams, 16, a Pittsburgh resident who works at McDonald's to save up for college.
At the gathering outside McDonald's, the protesters stamped their feet and chanted: "Take your burgers, take your fries. Make our wages super-sized."
The Rev. Ken Love, who addressed the crowd, called the inequity of wages "criminal." He suggested that in Pittsburgh -- a city renowned for its affordability -- a living wage would fall closer to $15 an hour.
"That's just barely what it takes a family to get by on," he told the cheering crowd. "If you have two kids, you're still going to struggle to get a mortgage to buy a home to live in. It isn't even like on $15, I can buy a house, I can buy a car, I can go on vacation."
A recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute falls in line with this view. A family of two parents and two children would need to earn $65,952 to live comfortable but thrifty lives in Pittsburgh. That total includes enough to pay the average rent here as well as the average cost of health care and childcare. It does not include such home staples as cable or Internet access because those are not considered necessary expenses. Still, two parents working full time for the minimum wage would make about half that salary.
"It's still a relatively austere budget," said Hilary Wething, a research assistant at the Economic Policy Institute and a co-author of the report. "There's no emergency fund, there's no retirement savings, there's no college savings. There's no going on vacation."
Michelle Hackman: email@example.com or at 412-263-1969.