It was cold when the demonstration began, and getting colder. Father Jesus Camacho of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Boise rubbed his hands together and removed his golf cap, holding a cross-adorned document folder close to his clergy shirt. Taking up a loudspeaker, he read his benediction.
"We are not asking for favors. We are asking for justice," he said.
Behind Camacho was the McDonald's located at 1375 Broadway Ave., in Boise, and inside were the minimum wage workers on whose behalf he was speaking.
The noontime demonstration, organized Dec. 5 by Raise Idaho and United Vision for Idaho, was in support of a ballot initiative that would raise the minimum wage in increments from $7.25 to $9.80--61 cents higher than Washington's nation-leading $9.19 per hour wage--by the end of 2017, after which it would be pegged to the consumer price index. That same day, similar organizations were staging protests around the country advocating higher pay for America's lowest-paid workers.
According to UVI Executive Director Adrienne Evans, Idaho's high proportion of low-pay workers makes it an ideal testing ground for a pay increase: If workers have more disposable income, they will spend more money, giving the economy a boost.
"Think of it as the opposite of trickle-down [economics]--it's actually trickle-up," Evans said.
Raising wages may also affect the number of Idahoans enrolled in public assistance programs. According to a study released by the University of California, Berkeley, workers in the $200-billion fast food industry cost American taxpayers about $7 billion annually through use of those programs.
Meanwhile, the portrait of who works fast food jobs is becoming more complicated, particularly in light of Idaho's recovering economy. In August, Boise Weekly reported that most recipients of SNAP benefits--so-called "food stamps"--in Idaho are the working poor; and according to the Berkeley study, the vast majority of American frontline fast food workers are older than 20 years old. A full 68 percent are the primary wage earners in their households.
Getting higher pay for fast food and other low-wage workers in Idaho means putting that issue on the November 2014 ballot. UVI and Raise Idaho will have to collect a minimum of 53,751 signatures, or 6 percent of Idaho voters as a whole--a much lower hurdle than the requirement imposed by a new law passed in the 2013 Idaho Legislature mandating ballot initiatives collect signatures from 6 percent of registered voters in 18 of Idaho's 35 legislative districts. Rather than going district-to-district, advocates for a minimum wage increase can concentrate on collecting signatures in the state's population centers.
"[The initiative law] makes it really cost prohibitive to get measures on the ballot," Evans said. "What happens is, Idaho voters get to decide."
The Raise Idaho and UVI demonstration was concurrent with others around the country that called for a $15 per hour minimum wage. Officials in the restaurant industry have balked at the $15 per hour demand, saying doing so would raise fast-food prices, reduce employment and increase the rate of industry automation, but unions and advocates say that paying higher wages will result in greater workplace productivity and reduce job turnover.
"Economically, it's great for big business. It's also incredibly good for smaller businesses," Evans said.