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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Eric Cantor, the Fry Cook and the Whopper

Did you hear the story about President Obama and the fry cook? House Majority Leader Eric Cantor did, but he got it wrong.

Cantor writes in an op-ed that “a fry cook asked President Obama why his hours were being cut to part time because of Obamacare,” and then suggests the president ignored the question “by saying he was pushing to raise the minimum wage.” But the fry cook asked about low wages, not “why his hours were being cut,” and he wanted to know what the president and Congress are doing about it. Obama answered the question.

Cantor’s op-ed appeared March 27 on the ABC News website under the headline, “Let’s Restore Hourly Wages Cut By Obamacare.” It was re-posted elsewhere, including on the conservative World News Network website.

The op-ed opens with an anecdote about a Google+ Hangout exchange (14 minute mark) between the president and Darnell Summers, a 57-year-old fast-food fry cook from Milwaukee.

Cantor, March 27: On Jan. 31, a fry cook asked President Obama why his hours were being cut to part time because of Obamacare, and the president responded by saying he was pushing to raise the minimum wage.

This moment between the fry cook and the president reveals the entire reasoning of the Democratic Party’s push to raise the minimum wage. Rather than restore wages and hours lost by working middle-class Americans due to Obamacare, Democrats are hiding these losses behind a false debate about the minimum wage.

This is a case of an anecdote that is too good to check. It fits the GOP narrative and agenda, but it’s not accurate.

Summers did mention — in an aside — that he and others at his job site “were broken down to part-time to avoid paying health insurance,” but his focus and his question were about low hourly wages and what Washington could do about it. He said he makes only $7.25 per hour and has been on strike four times to get an increase, without success. Here’s his full question and the beginning of the president’s response, which focused entirely on Summers’ question about low wages:

Summers, Jan. 31: Good afternoon, Mr. President. My name is Darnell Summers. I’m 57 years old and I work in the fast food industry. I have been on strike four times — I’m only making $7.25 an hour. I’ve been on strike four times in association with Wisconsin Jobs Now, to try to get an increase in wages and a fast-food union, with no prevail.

My question to you is, what can you and Congress do to help people as myself in this situation survive, because with $7.25, — and we were broken down to part-time to avoid paying health insurance — we can’t survive. It’s not living.

Obama: Well, Darnell, I agree with you. And on Tuesday, at my State of the Union, I talked about this. We’ve got to make sure that the economy is growing and creating jobs. We got to make sure folks have the skills to get those jobs. But we also got to make sure the work pays and the minimum wage in this country has not gone up in a very long time. It’s actually worth about 20 percent less than when Ronald Reagan came into office, back in 1980. And I think the one thing Americans agree on is that if you work full-time in this country, you should not be in poverty, when you’re raising your families.

So here’s what I’ve done myself, through executive action. I intend to make sure that anybody who’s doing federal business, anybody who’s a federal contractor; that their federally funded employees are governed by a minimum wage, $10.10 an hour.

Beyond that, I’m working to encourage states, you know governors, mayors, state legislators, to raise their own minimum wage. And since I made this call for a higher minimum wage a year ago, you’ve seen already five states that have increased their minimum wage. A number of cities have moved forward on a living wage initiative, of the sort that you’re talking about in your hometown, in your home state.

So I’m going to continue to try to support those coalitions, saying it’s the right thing to do. Obviously, the way to reach millions of people would be for Congress to pass a new federal minimum wage law, and so far at least, we have not seen support from Republicans in Congress for such a move, but I’m hoping that, as we keep on making the arguments out there, they come to recognize that it’s the right thing to do.

Summers never asks the president “why his hours were being cut to part time because of Obamacare.” If anything, this strikes us as a softball question from a friendly source who teed it up for the president to recite his talking points about the minimum wage.

Summers is not just any fry cook, but one who says he is associated with Wisconsin Jobs Now — an organization dedicated to fighting for “a living wage.” On its “about us” page, the organization says: “Organizing low wage workers in fast food and retail positions to improve pay.”

We found three news stories that featured Summers speaking at the state Capitol press conference on Jan. 21 to introduce Wisconsin’s Fair Minimum Wage Act — a bill that would raise the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour, just as Obama has urged Congress to do on a national level.

WPR, Jan. 22: Darnell Summers, 57, is a fast-food worker who makes minimum wage: $7.25 an hour. He’s part-time and not by choice: His employer, Popeye’s, trimmed employee’s hours to 28 per week. Summers said it’s hard to pay his bills, and he relies on FoodShare. “I pay $550 rent,” said Summers. “I make $640 a month. That’s not living. I am able-bodied; I should not have to depend on a Quest card so I can eat.”

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Jan. 21: Minimum-wage worker Darnell Summers of Milwaukee said he receives $640 a month in take-home pay working at Popeye’s. Summers had been working 40 hours a week, but he said all workers last year were cut back to 28 hours a week. Almost all of what he makes — $550 a month — goes toward rent, he said. “That’s not living,” Summers, 57, said at a Capitol news conference. “I’m able-bodied. I should not have to depend on a Quest (food stamps) card so I can eat when I’m working. All I’m saying is give me a life raft and I’ll take it from there. Otherwise, I’ll keep drowning.”

Fox6 TV, Jan. 21: Fast food and other low-wage workers have staged protests for higher wages. 57-year-old fast food worker Darnell Summers of Milwaukee says the wage hike would keep him afloat. “Keep my head above water so I can breathe, because right now I’m just drowning,” Summers said.

Wisconsin Jobs Now supports the bill and wrote about the bill introduction in a blog item that included photos of Summers speaking and holding a sign saying, “Raise Minimum Wage.”

Wisconsin Jobs Now also issued a press release on the exchange between Summers and Obama with the headline, “Wisconsin Fast Food Striker Asks President Obama About Higher Wages.”

It’s clear to us from Summers’ background and his question that his chief concern is getting a minimum wage law passed.

As for Summers’ reference to the Affordable Care Act being responsible for his cut hours, we should note that the employer mandate hasn’t taken effect yet and won’t until 2015. So it’s not clear why exactly Popeye’s would have cut his hours. On July 2, 2013, the Treasury Department announced that the mandate — which would require large employers to provide health coverage or face penalties — would be delayed until 2015. We tried to contact Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen Inc. to ask whether the health care law was responsible for hours being cut at its fast-food restaurants and franchises. But we did not hear back. We will update this item if we do.

It would have been accurate if Cantor had said the president failed to address or even acknowledge Summers’ mention that his hours have been cut because of the Affordable Care Act. But it’s wrong to say Summers “asked President Obama why his hours were being cut to part-time because of Obamacare.” Summers asked about low wages, and the president answered the question.

— Eugene Kiely and Robert Farley