Living Wages, Rarity for U.S. Fast-Food Workers, Served Up in Denmark

By:  Liz Alderman and Steven Greenhouse

COPENHAGEN — On a recent afternoon, Hampus Elofsson ended his 40-hour workweek at a Burger King and prepared for a movie and beer with friends. He had paid his rent and all his bills, stashed away some savings, yet still had money for nights out.

That is because he earns the equivalent of $20 an hour — the base wage for fast-food workers throughout Denmark and two and a half times what many fast-food workers earn in the United States.

“You can make a decent living here working in fast food,” said Mr. Elofsson, 24. “You don’t have to struggle to get by.”

With an eye to workers like Mr. Elofsson, some American labor activists and liberal scholars are posing a provocative question: If Danish chains can pay $20 an hour, why can’t those in the United States pay the $15 an hour that many fast-food workers have been clamoring for?

“We see from Denmark that it’s possible to run a profitable fast-food business while paying workers these kinds of wages,” said John Schmitt, an economist at the Center for Economic Policy Research, a liberal think tank in Washington.

Many American economists and business groups say the comparison is deeply flawed because of fundamental differences between Denmark and the United States, including Denmark’s high living costs and taxes, a generous social safety net that includes universal health care and a collective bargaining system in which employer associations and unions work together. The fast-food restaurants here are also less profitable than their American counterparts.

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