I saw today where Wal-Mart plans to boost their minimum wage to benefit half a million employees. It doesn’t seem like a large increase, but it’s a step forward. I don’t shop at WM, but I like the idea that people who work hard for the money and put up with assorted crap may receive it. I’m following the fight among fast food workers for a decent pay increase with greater interest, because I’ve been there. I never expected to work in that industry for much of my life but in the darkest of times, when the economy did me no favors, I pondered the possibility. Once following a post-9/11 layoff from a major media corporation (great benefits, company credit card, poof) I had a few applications in hand before the phone call from Gainful Employer came. I mopped my brow with one, relieved.
I’ve read many arguments against livable wages for retail and fast food employees, the most common being the idea of the McJob as a starter. You’re a teenager with no experience and need that line on the resume to move forward. You don’t intend to stay in the drive-thru booth into your forties, right? It’s not a career unless you hop on the management/executive track. It’s a job where people put food in a bag and hand it to other people through a window. Is that really worth $15 an hour?
If that job is all that sustains you and your family, I’d say yes. I’ve served time on the passing side of that window, and in my experience the job required skills. You’re handling food, or money, and you’re required to get all the totals correct while moving along a never-ending line of hungry, cranky people at a decent clip. You’re keeping an establishment clean so people eating that food won’t get sick and die on your watch.
I worked at McDonald’s from 1988 to about 1993, high school through college. I took the job initially to pay for a school trip to Mexico, and stayed because there were few opportunities elsewhere that offered a flexible schedule while I worked on my degree. Where I lived, too, there were no offices that needed receptionists and the ones that hired weren’t willing to give a high school graduate with B grades in typing a break. I couldn’t work as a waitress as a minor because I couldn’t serve alcohol. No Internet existed for me to hang up a virtual assistant shingle and send tweets on behalf of plumbers and pet stores.
Mind you, I had other choices. Burger King, Rally’s, KFC, etc. I stayed at the McJob by virtue of proximity to home. First thing I learned about the McJob: you put on the uniform and the customers automatically assume you have a double-digit IQ or lower, and if you’re the quiet sort your co-workers and supervisors assume you’re a pushover and dump all the downtime work on you.
Kathryn, go restock all the drink and condiment stations while I take a travel path. The “travel path” is a store-wide inspection of the grounds to check for problem areas. For some of our managers, it was an excuse to indulge in a thirty-minute cigarette break. If you were a favored employee, you got to tag along and gossip while Kathryn restocked all the drink and condiment stations.
I worked weekends during the school year and full-time in the summer, typically during the breakfast shift where I woke up at 4AM and went to bed at 8PM. It put a huge strain on my social life. I started at $3.25/hour, and I can’t remember where I ended – close to $5 if not a bit over. The restaurant was located across the street from my high school and close to an interstate off-ramp, so it was damn busy seven days a week. When the high school hosted Battle of the Bands…oh, FML.
In the five years I worked at two different McLocations, I put up with sexual harassment from co-workers, I was assaulted by an irate customer who waited too long for his Egg McMuffin, and once when I asked a customer to clarify his order he shouted at me and reduced me to tears. I understand people get stressed and may lash out an inappropriate moments, but if you’re the type of person who finds pleasure in belittling a human being who wants to ensure your order is correct, you are an asshole.
On one particularly busy day, with customers lining all four registers, each six people deep in line and waiting to order, a man approached me with a threatening gesture. “Get back there and get busy!” he hollered at me. I was there to relieve the morning drive-thru cashier, like I could have helped him. Another time while leaving at the end of a night shift, two customers dissatisfied with their food waited over an hour for my shift to end to confront me in the parking lot. Memories of that last incident are fuzzy, but as the quiet type I always did my best to McSmile and treat people decently. Again, it’s the uniform, the striped button-down shirt and the visor with the bright yellow M that might as well stand for MASOCHIST, that inspires vitriol.
On top of this, the first McLocation was situated near a low-income neighborhood where the drug deals occasionally spilled into our back parking lot. There’s me hanging out an open window collecting money. Thankfully I never worked on the few occasions that store was robbed.
Sometimes during weekend shifts I would put in eight hours on a Sunday, go home and scrub away the stench of animal tallow and reconstituted onions, then come back the next Saturday to find a whole new crew of people working. Turnover was nuts, but when you consider the minimum wage at the time are you surprised? A good number of employees at this location were Navy wives and recently emigrated Mexicans, some of whom couldn’t speak a lick of English. There were others like me, teenagers saving up for mad money and tuition and such, but most of the people I worked with were there to pay rent and bills.
Some of those people who worked full-time would put in eight hours at McD’s, clock out and change into a Rally’s or KFC uniform, and walk across the street to their next job. Grandmothers worked morning shifts. People with three roommates. I rode a bicycle to work because it didn’t make sense to drive a short distance, but a lot of my co-workers took a bus or walked to avoid extra expenses.
My exposure to all this is partly what kept my nose in the textbooks. I should also add in the five years I worked there I watched the company cut corners to improve “efficiency” and it may have saved them money, but I personally didn’t see much of a pay increase.
We could say, “Well, these people should have done better in school, or used a condom, or did this or did that and their lives would be better.” It’s not always a guarantee. I go to Buzzfeed and see slideshows of homeless people who once competed in the Olympics and/or worked in nuclear physics. After earning my degree and landing Awesome Job I still got into financial trouble after the aforementioned layoff. I worked with many people in this time, and you know what? They all deserved a living wage.
Perhaps if these companies upped the wages they wouldn’t see so much employee turnover, and maybe morale would be higher. McDonald’s in particular is changing their image. They’re moving away from the clown mascots and trying to compete with Panera Bread and the “fast casual” heavy hitters, because those restaurants are cutting into their market. That will be challenging to accomplish if you could care less about the people who work for you, who in turn don’t give a shit about their jobs.
Every time I pass a McDonald’s, it’s busy. There’s money being made, why not share the McLove?
Photo from FreeImages