(Adds quotes from demonstrations in Knoxville, Boston and Washington)
By Mark Guarino
CHICAGO, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Thousands of U.S. fast-food workers and supporters marched in nearly 200 cities around the United States on Thursday including Chicago and Boston to advocate for a $15 minimum wage and other labor rights.
About 200 demonstrators marched in downtown Chicago starting near the Rock 'N' Roll McDonald's, the largest in the city, chanting "We can't survive on $8.25."
Behind a thick, colorful scarf, Halle Smith, 20, was among about 50 demonstrators in frigid pre-dawn temperatures outside a Milwaukee Taco Bell.
"I shouldn't have to have two jobs just to survive," said Smith, who said she has earned the minimum wage for about three years and works 60 hours a week at two jobs, a Sonic restaurant and a group home.
Organizers said Thursday's protests, under a banner organization called Fight for 15 and including the home care and airline industries, were the most expansive to date, increasing to about 190 cities from 150 in a similar protest in September. No arrests had been reported as of Thursday afternoon.
Workers planned strikes and walkouts at fast-food restaurants such as McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's, and major airports including John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City.
The union-backed actions are part of a push since 2012 for an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour from $7.25, where it has held since 2009.
Jonelle Walker, 29, a home care worker from a suburb west of Chicago who said she serves as the legs, eyes and ears of a Vietnam veteran, was among the marchers on Thursday. She said low wages in her industry hurt clients and workers, because of high turnover.
"No one wants a different person in and out of their house working," Walker said.
MARCHING IN COLD FOR HIGHER WAGES
In the Boston area, scores of fast-food workers and their supporters filled a McDonald's and a Dunkin Donuts in working-class Chelsea, Massachusetts, early Thursday.
Sharera Fernandez, 30, a McDonald's worker at the Boston protest who also cares for a disabled aunt, said fast food workers are misunderstood.
"From the outside, it looks like there's no skill involved, you're flipping burgers," Fernandez said. "But from our perspective, we do a lot. Sometimes you have to do more than one person's job ... It's not easy at all."
Melinda Robinson of Kansas City, Missouri, and her 5-year-old daughter, Mercy, marched Thursday with about 100 people in downtown Kansas City, Kansas, seeking a $15 wage and union.
"We need a living wage to be able to support our families. They don't think we deserve it," said Robinson, who has six children and makes $9 per hour working at a Subway.
In Knoxville, McDonald's employee Diamond Jackson, 18, said she wants to be a nurse like her mother, but cannot afford school. "I make $7.25, and we're out here telling people that we can't get by on that," she said.
About 650 federal contract workers in the nation's capital walked off fast food jobs at landmarks like the National Zoo, organizers said. Workers said they need more than the $10.10 per hour President Barack Obama approved for workers on new contracts in January.
"We are still too poor to afford the American Dream," said Jessenia Vega, who works at the Pentagon McDonald's.
Advocates of higher hourly pay say full-time workers are kept below the poverty threshold for a family of four at the current wage. Opponents say the protests are tainted because they involved major labor organizations.
Fast-food chains say their locations are largely owned by independent operators who are responsible for pay rates of employees. (Reporting by Mark Guarino in Chicago, John Clarke in Washington, Brian Snyder and Daniel Lovering in Boston, Kevin Murphy in Kansas City, Kansas, Melodi Erdogan in Knoxville, Tennessee and Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Bernard Orr and Bill Trott)