By Elizabeth Dilts
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Fast-food workers in hundreds of cities across the United States kicked off a day of strikes and rallies on Thursday to demand a higher minimum wage. The largest job actions were expected in New York and Washington, organizers said.
Workers want the federal minimum wage raised to $15 from $7.25, saying the current rate is not enough to live on. Critics counter that doubling the minimum wage would cost jobs, forcing employers to cut back on the number of workers.
In New York City, where some 57,000 fast-food workers earn an average of $8.89 an hour, protesters were picketing at one McDonald's restaurant shortly after dawn on Thursday.
In Washington, federal contract workers at the McDonald's inside the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum walked off the job, and about 150 people assembled to picket outside the building.
"While McDonald's rakes in tons of money from its contract with the federal government, I have to walk to work because I can't even afford the bus fare," Alexis Vasquez said in a statement issued by organizers of the Smithsonian's McDonald's workers.
Thursday's demonstrations come after protests held on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, by Walmart workers at about 1,500 U.S. stores. There were also strikes by fast-food workers in dozens of cities in August.
Fast-food workers say that today's minimum wage is not adjusted to inflation, as Congress has done since the first minimum wage was set in 1938.
They say they are forced to rely on federal aid to support themselves and their families.
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau and public benefit programs show 52 percent of fast-food cooks, cashiers and other staff relied on at least one form of public assistance, such as Medicaid, food stamps or the Earned Income Tax Credit program, between 2007 and 2011, according to researchers at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Illinois.
Some economists also argue that increasing the minimum wage could help stimulate the U.S. consumer economy because workers would have more money to spend.
(Reporting by Elizabeth Dilts; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Gunna Dickson)