CONCOURSE — Nathalia Sepulveda, a cook and cashier at the McDonald’s across from Yankee Stadium, sorts the roughly $174 she makes each week into a series of envelopes — one for rent, one for utilities, and so on.
The envelopes rarely stay filled — she often must dip into them during the week to pay for food, toiletries, transportation and the countless other costs of living and raising a 3-year-old son in the city while earning the minimum wage.
“It’s really rough,” she said Monday at a workers’ rally outside the 161st Street restaurant, her son clinging to her leg. “But I do the best I can to show him that I’m able to provide the little that I can.”
Workers from more than 100 McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Domino's, Papa John's and KFC chain restaurants around the city joined in a series of rallies Monday, according to organizers, as part of a multi-city campaign demanding higher wages for fast-food employees and the ability to freely unionize.
Some workers said they had walked off the job to participate in the protests, which the organizers called a one-day strike.
The New York workers demand an hourly wage of $15, more than double the state's $7.25 per hour minimum wage that many earn.
At the Bronx rally, employees from several McDonald’s locations described long hours with few breaks mopping floors, grilling burgers and serving customers for paychecks that must be combined with government benefits, other jobs or family support to make ends meet.
Sheliz Mendez, a Bronx college student who works at a Washington Heights McDonald’s, said she fainted on the job and had to be rushed to the hospital during this month’s heat wave because the kitchen’s air conditioning did not work.
She was joined at the Bronx rally Monday by several co-workers who said they had walked off the job after Mendez’s collapse to protest the allegedly unsafe conditions.
Sade Elliott, 19, an employee at a Mott Haven McDonald’s, said she often must remove insects from the restaurant’s dining area and used needles from its bathroom as part of her regular cleaning duties. Her minimum wage earnings are not enough to repay her student loans and offer her mother money for rent, she added.
Angel Arias, 18, an employee at the same location, said public transportation costs just to reach work consume much of his paycheck. He left his job to join the rally out of principle, he added, even if he doubted his earnings would rise.
“When I get older, my son might get a job and I want him to be treated fair — not to get the minimum wage,” he said.
McDonald's referred questions to the National Restaurant Association, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
Several lawmakers attended the Bronx protest, where they hand delivered a letter signed by an employee to the restaurant’s management. It listed the campaign’s demands and asserted the workers’ legal right to strike without retaliation.
“We are sick of making poverty wages and living on food stamps, in shelters, on family’s couches and not being able to provide for our children as hard as we work,” the letter read.
The state legislature voted earlier this year to raise the minimum hourly wage to $9 by 2016.
State Sen. Gustavo Rivera said at Monday’s rally that he had not voted for the bill for several reasons, including that $9 was still too low, it would take too long to go into effect and it would not rise with inflation over time.
He argued that higher wages would boost the economy by helping workers rely less on government benefits and spend more on goods and services, while narrowing the growing gap between rich and poor.
“It’s as bad or worse as it’s been since the Great Depression, this inequality,” Rivera said.
Several customers said they sympathized with the workers, including Diana Francois, a Bronx resident who works in customer service.
She said the $15-per-hour demand seemed “a little extreme,” but that the current wage floor is much too low.
“Living in New York is expensive,” she said, “and $7.25 an hour really doesn’t cut it.”