If you worked your way through high school or college at a part-time job, there’s a good chance you served a stint behind a counter taking burger orders. Fast-food jobs are about as American as they come and have provided extra pocket change for teens and young adults for decades.

But the face of today’s fast-food worker is older and less likely to be acne prone. These days, fast-food wages more often go toward feeding a family than paying for textbooks. According to the Economic Policies Institute, the average age of a worker making the minimum wage (at a fast-food restaurant or elsewhere) is 35 years old. In fact, workers 20 and older comprise 88 percent of the minimum wage workforce. 

California’s minimum wage currently sits at $8 per hour. Anyone who has tried to live off this hourly rate knows how difficult it is to manage without a second or third job. And while our state is no stranger to efforts to boost the minimum wage, a recent series of fast-food employee protests that began in New York and continued across the nation may be the first to attack an entire industry well-known for its low wages, regardless of an employee’s experience or number of years on the job.

Opponents of raising the minimum wage argue that the $15-per-hour rate that the protesters are demanding is as realistic as a freshly ground McDonald’s hamburger. That’s because fast-food restaurant wages are set by the franchise owner, not corporate headquarters. They and small-business owners say they’re as tightly strapped as some of the workers due to thin profit margins.

Protest movements like the one described here can be very inspiring and even spur change, but some wage issues may require more immediate legal action. If you suspect your employer may be violating wage laws, it’s important to seek concrete solutions. One positive step any worker can take is to consult a professional well-versed in employment law. Time (at work) may not be much money, but knowledge is still power.

Source: Los Angeles Times, “Fast-food workers protest for higher wages in Los Angeles,” Tiffany Hsu and Alana Semuels, Aug. 29, 2013