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U.S. Marines walk down a removable Trident Pier leading to an American ship docked near a military base in al-Hamra, United Arab Emirates, on March 23, 2020. (AP) U.S. Marines walk down a removable Trident Pier leading to an American ship docked near a military base in al-Hamra, United Arab Emirates, on March 23, 2020. (AP)

U.S. Marines walk down a removable Trident Pier leading to an American ship docked near a military base in al-Hamra, United Arab Emirates, on March 23, 2020. (AP)

Jill Terreri Ramos
By Jill Terreri Ramos July 28, 2023

Fast-food jobs versus the military: Pay comparison missing context

If Your Time is short

  • Full-time fast-food workers in some states earn more than the base pay for entry-level active duty military members. 

  • When other compensation is added to the base pay for entry-level service members, their pay can exceed the average pay of full-time fast-food workers in states where fast-food wages are highest. 

  • Many fast-food workers struggle to work full-time hours, while active duty service members are not entitled to overtime pay. 

Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, an advocate for higher pay for military service members, recently compared their wages to fast-food workers. 

"You can work at some McDonald’s in this country for more money than … signing up for the military. It’s really truly a disgrace," the Staten Island Republican said on the New York City radio program "Sid and Friends."

The fight for higher wages for fast-food workers was successful in New York and has since spread around the country. A review of military compensation, mandated to happen every four years, was ordered by President Biden in January. 

Workers in both fields experience challenging financial circumstances. 

A quarter of active duty military members would have been classified as having low or very low food security in 2018, according to researchers with the Rand Corp., a global policy think tank. A report  published in May from the urban think tank Economic Roundtable found that one of every 17 homeless people in California worked in the fast-food industry, or more than 10,000 people. 

We wanted to find out whether Malliotakis’ claim is accurate, that someone could work at a McDonald’s restaurant and earn more money than someone who signed up for the military. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most updated data on fast-food and counter workers finds that in states where these workers have the highest pay, they earn on average between $33,000 and $36,000 a year, if they work full-time hours. The highest-paying states for fast-food workers are Washington, California, Massachusetts and New York, along with the District of Columbia.  In the highest-paying metro area,  San Jose, California. the average pay for full-time work was $39,110.

But many fast-food workers do not have full-time jobs. A study in California from Harvard University and the University of California, San Francisco found that 51% of fast-food workers wanted more hours. Daniel Flaming, president of the Economic Roundtable, told PolitiFact that front-line fast-food workers in California work on average 26 hours a week, and their median annual earnings was $14,949 in 2020. More than two-thirds of California’s front-line workers are paid under $20,000 a year, Flaming said.

The base pay for people starting in the military is much lower than the average full-time pay for fast-food workers in high-paying states. However, even low-ranking service members can receive additional compensation. 

The average base pay for the lowest-ranking service member is $21,215, according to a Congressional Research Service report published in November. But these personnel can receive additional compensation for housing and food if these items are not provided to them by the government. One-third of service members receive government housing, and the rest receive an allowance. The average total compensation for the lowest-ranking member is $44,810, when allowances for housing, food and a federal tax advantage are included. 

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Comparing military compensation with civilian compensation can be tricky because of the unique features of military pay. 

In the military, basic pay is taxable, unless a service member is in a tax-free combat zone, but housing and food allowances are not taxed. "For that reason, most service members receive a larger amount of take-home pay than civilians who are paid a comparable amount," according to the Congressional Budget Office. 

There are also attractive benefits for service members that are not typically afforded to fast-food workers, such as health care, educational programs and retirement pay, weighting total military compensation more heavily toward noncash and deferred benefits, "which increases the value of military compensation relative to that for comparable civilians by more than a comparison of cash compensation would suggest," according to the Congressional Budget Office

The U.S. Army puts it this way: "Your Army base salary is just one part of the total compensation soldiers receive. While civilian jobs may pay higher base salaries, the Army offers a starting salary above the federal minimum wage for a 40-hour work week, 30 days paid leave every year, plus a variety of benefits on top of your base pay that add up."

But unlike hourly civilian employees, active duty military personnel are not entitled to overtime pay. 

We asked Malliotakis’ office about her claim, and her spokesperson, Natalie Baldassarre, sent us the entry pay for the U.S. Army, $23,011, and a website that lists fast-food salaries, which states that McDonald’s average salary in New York is $30,283, and the starting salary is $19,000. We asked about additional compensation for service members but did not hear back. 

Our ruling

Malliotakis compared the starting salaries for military members with wages at McDonald’s. She did not specify starting wages at McDonald’s and she did not mention other benefits, such as health insurance or retirement savings. 

People who study military pay say it is difficult to compare it with civilian compensation because of the unique pay structure and benefits military members receive, such as allowances for food and housing, or government-provided meals and housing. 

Base pay for low-ranking members of the military is lower than the average full-time pay for fast-food workers in some states. When housing, food, and federal tax benefits are added, the value of the total compensation for entry-level service members can exceed the average pay for established full-time fast-food workers. In comparing compensation for both jobs, we looked at averages. In some cases, incomes in one job will be higher than in the other, or the reverse could be true. 

Malliotakis’ statement is partially accurate but it leaves out important details. We rate this Half True.  

Our Sources

"Sid and Friends," interview with Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, July 14, 2023. 

The Guardian, "‘The success is inspirational’: the Fight for $15 movement 10 years on," Nov. 23, 2022. 

Congressional Budget Office, "Approaches to Changing Military Compensation," January 2020. 

Congressional Research Service, "Defense Primer: Regular Military Compensation," Nov. 23, 2022. 

U.S. House Armed Services Committee testimony, "Military Compensation to Support Retention, Performance, and Talent Management," Beth J. Asch, Rand Corp., March 12, 2019.  

Rand Corp., "Food isecurity among members of the armed forces and their dependents," 2023. 

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational employment and wage statistics, fast-food and counter workers, May 2022. 

Harvard Kennedy School, University of California San Francisco, Shift research brief, "Low pay, less predictability: fast-food jobs in California," August 2022. 

The White House, "Memorandum on 14th quadrennial review of military compensation," Jan. 31, 2023. 

Defense Department, "Report of the 13th quadrennial review of military compensation, Vol. III structural changes to the military pay system," December 2020. 

Email interview, Jeannette Wicks-Lim, research professor, Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, July 18, 2023. 

Email interview, Daniel Flaming, president, Economic Roundtable, July 18, 2023. 

Email interview, Natalie Baldassarre, spokesperson for state Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-Staten Island, July 14, 2023.

U.S. Army, pay scales, 2023.

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Fast-food jobs versus the military: Pay comparison missing context

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