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Employment as a Fast Food Worker May Not Be Substantial Gainful Activity

I can never forget my first experience as a fast food worker. No matter what shift I worked or at what station, I always came home smelling of grease. I was occasionally burned by a hot grill or had fingers smashed unloading boxes of frozen food. Even as I continued through my twenties, full-time hours were never offered. I believe this was a common experience for many fast workers then, and still holds true today.

The fast food industry is a common employer in the United States, with an estimated 3.8 million employees last year.[1] The Bureau of Labor Statistics considers it to be unskilled, light duty work, noting key requirements of general math and comprehension skills, customer service, and understanding of food procedures. Recent data indicate a fast food worker has a national average salary of $23,680 per year.[2]

While this salary is above the threshold for "substantial gainful activity," the testimony of a vocational expert will sometimes vary from the data presented in the commonly referenced Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) or Selected Characteristics of Occupations (SCO). For example, the DOT and SCO list no environmental restrictions on concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants or workplace hazards. Yet, common experience suggests there is often significant exposure to pulmonary irritants from kitchen fumes, or hazardous equipment such as box cutters or vats of hot oil.

Even if the vocational expert fails to acknowledge these discrepancies, there is growing debate about whether a fast food worker earns substantial income, given that full-time hours are rarely offered to front line workers and cooks. The Washington Post submits that front line workers and cooks comprise about 90% of the fast food workforce, with only 2.2% in managerial or professional positions. [3] Moreover, about half of the families of fast food workers depend on public aid programs, and about one-fifth live below the federal poverty line.

If a vocational expert cites a fast food worker as potential job for a disabled claimant, I invite you to challenge their testimony based on common sense.


[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/196630/number-of-employees-in-us-fast-food-restaurants-since-2002/

[2] https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/fast-food-worker-salary-SRCH_KO0,16.htm

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/five-myths-about-fast-food-work/2015/04/10/a62e9ab8-dee0-11e4-a500-1c5bb1d8ff6a_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.4f32a2f5abc0

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