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Employees at fast food restaurants are walking picket lines across the country this week. They're staging a series of one-day strikes in seven cities, including New York, Chicago, and St. Louis. The campaign is aimed at pressuring McDonald's, Wendy's and other fast food chains to pay what's called a living wage of $15 an hour. The restaurant industry says that could force those companies to cut jobs. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: At a Wendy's restaurant in Lower Manhattan, protesters urged the lunchtime crowd to skip the Value Menu for a day.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

ROSE: Protesters blocked the sidewalk and half of the street. Shanell Young held a red strike sign over her head. Young earns the minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, at another Wendy's in New York. She says that's not enough to support her and her five-year-old son.

SHANELL YOUNG: It's horrible. It's horrible. Everything goes up. It's unfair. You can't find an apartment. You can't pay for children's school uniforms. Everything is unfair. We can't live off this.

ROSE: The walkout did not force the restaurant to close, although it did seem to persuade a few potential diners to go somewhere else. Fast food workers picketed in front of five restaurants in New York, including Wendy's, Burger King and McDonald's. None of those companies would give an interview for this story. But the National Restaurant Association did. Spokesman Scott DeFife says profit margins in the restaurant business are typically tight and labor costs are among the industry's biggest expenses.

SCOTT DEFIFE: There would be a severe impact on the ability to create jobs if all of a sudden the minimum wage was doubling to 15.

ROSE: The restaurant industry's allies also rallied to its defense. The Employment Policies Institute, a pro-business group in Washington, D.C., bought a full-page ad in Monday's USA Today.

MICHAEL SALTSMAN: The text says: Meet the new minimum wage employee, and it's sort of a fast food worker with kind of an iPad for a head and it says, May I take your order?

ROSE: Michael Saltsman is research director at the EPI. He says a higher minimum wage could push fast-food companies to invest more heavily in automation instead of hourly workers.

SALTSMAN: There are a number of chains here in the U.S. who are experimenting with electronic menus where you can order on an iPad-type device, you can pay on that device. These are changes that happen in direct response to higher labor costs.

ROSE: Critics of raising the minimum wage say it might also affect the kind of people who can get hired. Diana Furchtgott-Roth is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a former chief economist at the Department of Labor. Furchtgott-Roth says many of the people making the minimum wage are teenagers or other part-time entry-level workers.

DIANA FURCHTGOTT-ROTH: So the people who would be the losers would be the unskilled workers. The people who, like my teenager, want a summer job. No one's going to pay my teenager $15 an hour. But my teenager can get 7.25 an hour.

ROSE: But these arguments haven't convinced the protesters in New York. And they haven't persuaded Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who stopped by to encourage the picketers outside the Wendy's in his district.

REPRESENTATIVE JERROLD NADLER: The history is every time that there's been a debate over raising the minimum wage, people have said this'll cost jobs. It has never happened. If they pay a higher wage, they'll make a slightly smaller profit margin. They're making huge profits now.

ROSE: The fast-food protests continue this week with walkouts scheduled in Chicago, Milwaukee, Flint, Michigan, Milwaukee and Detroit. Joe Rose, NPR News, New York.

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