Inside the McDonald's at 420 Monroe Ave., workers hustled through the lunchtime rush Thursday, getting out Big Macs and fries.

Outside, about two dozen protesters agitated for higher pay for those fast-food workers and roughly 3.6 million other Americans paid at or below minimum wage.

"The minimum wage is not a livable wage. People can't survive on that; they can't support their families," said Kay Embrey of Brighton as she stood in front of the restaurant with a posterboard sign reading "Low pay is not OK. My son works 3 jobs."

Similar protests were held at McDonald's from Los Angeles and Houston to New York's Times Square, with each centering around the idea of raising the minimum wage to $15.

The $7.25 federal minimum wage has come under more fire with protests by Wal-Mart and fast food workers. The protests have been backed by labor unions, with the Service Employees International Union helping to organize similar protests in August.

In a statement McDonald's spokeswoman Lisa McComb said that the fast food giant "and our owner-operators are committed to providing our employees with opportunities to succeed. We offer employees advancement opportunities, competitive pay and benefits. And we invest in training and professional development that helps them learn practical and transferable business skills.

"We also respect the right to voice an opinion," McComb said. "To right-size the headlines, however, the events taking place are not strikes. Outside groups are traveling to McDonald's and other outlets to stage rallies. Our restaurants remain open today — and every day — thanks to our dedicated employees serving our customers."

Several states have minimum wages higher than the federal, including Florida ($7.79 an hour), California ($8), Connecticut ($8.25), and Vermont ($8.60). New York's minimum wage is $7.25.

'Blunderbuss' or …

The scientific literature on the issue is mixed on a big jump in the federal minimum wage. A 2010 study published in The Review of Economics and Statistics found that increases in the minimum wage had no impact on hiring and even tended to boost employment in some cases by reducing employee turnover.

But a 2007 Institute for the Study of Labor paper found that while there's no clear consensus in the economics world about what a higher minimum wage does to low-wage employment, a significant number of studies consistently found that higher minimum wages have a negative effect on employment.

Raising the minimum wage, particularly to $15 an hour, "has a wonderful populist ring," said Mark Zupan, dean of the University of Rochester's Simon Business School.

"I wish we could wave a wand and make this happen. If it were to go to $15, it would be a blunderbuss approach rather than targeted to people who really need help," he said.

The folks who are poor, working-age adults, the key problem is whether they have jobs or not. That's where you'd want to target your efforts. The more job creation we end up doing, that's the most direct way to help people we want to help. Whether it's providing education or training that lets people get that first job or nurturing an economy more effective at creating jobs would go further."

Meanwhile, Zupan said, raising the price of labor through a higher minimum wage would drive down demand, meaning less hiring and lower employment, and drive up prices — negating the benefit of a higher minimum wage.

However, said Embrey, the poverty-level pay of a minimum wage salary — $15,080 a year, before taxes — means that society as a whole subsidizes minimum-wage workers anyway.

"Right now, a lot of McDonald's workers get food stamps," she said. "These huge corporations making big big profits, their workers are having to go get public assistance or welfare that we as taxpayers pay for."

Political support

Politically, support falls along a left-right divide. At the U.S. Labor Department blog on Thursday, Labor Secretary Tom Perez wrote that the Obama administration sees a higher federal minimum wage "as smart economic policy that strengthens all of us. When you put more money in the pockets of working families, they spend it on groceries, gas, school supplies, and other goods and services. And that helps businesses grow and create jobs."

U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, was among more than 60 members of Congress who sent a letter Thursday to McDonalds Corp. CEO Don Thompson, calling for more pay for its workers. U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, did not return a message seeking comment Thursday. He did not sign the letter.

In a statement Thursday, Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the conservative Independent Women's Forum, said that "People often assume that employers have huge profit margins and could easily pay more, but don't because they are mean-spirited. Workers' interests are not served by laws and regulations that make it impossible for businesses to survive. That's why the real key to improving workers' prospects is making it easier for businesses to grow and create jobs — so that employers are able to pay more and have to compete for workers through higher wages and better benefits."