Ah. The fast food employee wage debate. Let’s see how much trouble I get into with THIS one. I, of course, am biased; because up until now, I WAS a fast food employee. However, circumstances have made me more than a bit concerned for my safety and that of others; so, I’m quitting. Bad me, quitting without notice; but, I’m not going to contribute to accident and injury.
Here’s my experiences with fast food Hell.
The Interview: I meet with M, the store manager. The interview questions are standard. However, M seems to have moved beyond coldly professional to straight out unfriendly. Several times (at least five), she points out that this fast food “restaurant” is “a FAMILY establishment”. When she leaves for a moment, I quickly take stock of my appearance. Black slacks, black dress boots without heels, black sweater vest, black and white striped dress shirt underneath. My shoulder-length hair is neatly combed, and the sides are carefully pinned away from my face. My nails are unpainted. My makeup is subtle, barely noticeable. My only jewelry is my engagement ring and wedding band. I’ve done my best to have a neutral appearance. Maybe it’s my body posture that hints that I’m not family friendly? I’m doing my best to appear at ease without seeming TOO at ease. I’m keeping my back and neck straight, despite it causing pain due to a previous neck injury. Is it my speech? I’m using my best customer service voice and attitude, which had served me well in the past.
She returns with a new hire folder. She tells me point-blank that she has reservations about hiring me, but won’t say why. She advises me that open availability during all business hours is a requirement. I silently curse. I won’t even be able to pick up a second job to help my financial situation. I will be working the front counter. I’ll mostly be working in the mornings, but only doing the actual opening procedures on rare occasion. She tells me when to go to orientation. I thank her for her time and for the opportunity to join her team, like a good little puppet. We part.
Orientation: I have the hubby drive me to the training office a few cities over. We quickly learn that the orientation actually starts an hour after M had told me to be there. We wait. Once I can finally go in, I and several teens fill out tax forms. Once that has been completed, we are encouraged to tell the orientation leader our names and our plans for the summer. I share that I plan on attending a symphony and spending time with my son. She immediately looks at the floor and laughs. Call me crazy, but that doesn’t seem to be a good sign. We are later advised that no matter how early we request a date off, it can be denied for little or no reason.
We spend an hour being told about our jobs. We will be making $9.47 per hour (Washington state minimum wage). We do have benefits available to us, but only once our schedules reach thirty-five hours a week. We are advised that we will likely be working twelve to twenty hours a week. Crew wages cap out at $9.50. Supercrew (equivalent of crew trainers) cap out at $10. Shift managers still make less than $11. We are expected to be fully proficient at all work stations within sixty days. That means register, grill, assembly, maintenance, and drive-thru (where applicable). At thirty days, we will receive our first employee review. We are advised that for most areas, management are REQUIRED to state that we need improvement; no matter how good we’ve become. We are also advised that business needs are our top priority – even when we’re not at work. When we reach the section on food and work safety, she skips it; but still tells us to sign off on it.
A young lady was later sobbing in the bathroom, because she realized that she would have to quit her soccer team in order to stay employed.
Next come the uniforms. I am 5’10”. My bra size is 34D. I request a Large size shirt, due to my bust and general size. I’m given a Medium. I’m refused an exchange. I try it on, per my employer’s request. It barely fits over my chest. My employer considers trying a size Small. I refuse.
The next part of my uniform is a knee-length skirt. In food service. Where I’ll be working around hot grease and oil. I can already picture bad things, but I’m desperate. Any job is better than no job; right?
I cry on the way home.
Day One: Four hour shift. I’m given a quick tour of the store. The employee break room is actually only a little cubby hole that’s tucked into the same narrow corridor as the office area. There is nowhere for us to store or warm our own food. Our only options are nonperishables or food from our own store. I receive criticism for my hair. It’s apparently not contained enough, although it’s not in my face and barely touching my collar. I explain that the rest is too short to tie back. I’m asked if I’ve considered a new hairstyle.
I’m then taken to the front. My “trainer” (another crew member) shows me the register. After having me watch her take one order and being supervised while I take a second, I’m left on my own. Whenever I ask for help, the shift manager rolls her eyes.
Day Two: Three hour shift. I’m opening with another employee, J. I’m not told that I’ll be spending half an hour in the freezer, and that I should have brought a coat during the beginning of summer. I can’t feel my fingers by the time we finish stocking eggs, bacon, sausage, six racks of buns, muffins, biscuits, pancakes, hash browns, fries, hamburgers, four types of chicken, fish, and desserts for the entire day. We are then left with ten minutes to roll twenty breakfast burritos before cooking sausage, two types of eggs, and bacon; as well as baking biscuits and toasting muffins. We also assemble half of the equipment for the day. All of this takes the two of us forty-five minutes to complete. She then shows me how to cook the sausage, bacon, and two types of eggs to company standards. We finish with five minutes to spare before the store is open. The manager, E, doesn’t check the quality of products; despite company regulations. J does. “E trusts me.”
As we are opening, J realizes that she doesn’t have enough of a food product. She drives to another store half an hour away to borrow some, as the closer store is also out. She’s not compensated.
When J returns, she shows me how to filter the fry vats. I’m immediately worried. Remember; I’m wearing a knee-length skirt. To protect myself, I’m given a rubber apron that only covers me to the end of my skirt. My shins are still exposed. The filtering machine is uncovered, and barely comes to the middle of my shins. J wears the same, and a pair of rubber gloves that come to the shoulder. She admits that “We’re also supposed to be wearing face shields”, but that the store manager won’t order one. M feels they’re not necessary; and the franchise owner agrees. She attaches a pipe leading from the vat to the edge of the machine. She turns the vat heating element off and begins to drain the vat. I step back. I can feel pinpoint droplets of hot oil splattering my legs. “It’s part of the job,” she says. She uses a metal rod to unclog the drain when it’s clogged with fries and other debris from the night before. Using a hose that is attached to the machine, she rinses the vat with the now filtered oil. She scrubs it with a special cleaner and a long stick with a scrubber pad, then rinses again. She then uses another stick with a grill rag on the end to push the rest of the oil out of the vat. She rinses it again before plugging the drain and using the hose to refill the vat with the filtered, but almost black, vegetable oil. She warns me to be sure that the vat is turned off, or the oil will catch fire. I’m now afraid of starting a fire. “Don’t worry. Fires here are common. Just throw a lid over it.” I’m not comforted. I’d worked in a different location with the same company six years earlier (at night; which is why I have not a clue what to do at breakfast), and fires were far from common.
J supervises me while I filter the next vat. I can feel the oil splattering. Thankfully, there’s no visible burns. With the third vat, J says I’m doing “good enough” and leaves me alone.
I’m paranoid about the vats being on.
I also learn that the previous night, a manager had slipped and thrown out her hip. She was encouraged not to document the injury.
Day Three: Three hour shift. J and I open together for the last time. Being new and unsure of where things are, I’m behind. J helps where she can. I learn that I hate burritos with a fiery passion. They are time-consuming to make, and the store sells them like they’re going out of style. J ends up taking over when I’m falling behind, then gives me a checklist for the opening shift. It’s four pages long, and is to be completed in the first forty-five minutes of my shift. She also tells me I won’t have much time to learn the menu items. It’s best to take a picture of the cheat sheet hanging above the assembly table and spend time memorizing it at home, as I won’t have the time to learn it at work. Every time the shift manager catches me looking, she tells me that I need to hurry and says what’s on the sandwich.
I filter the vats on my own. My shins are splattered once again. Not hot enough to leave a lasting mark, but enough to make me wish I knew more languages to swear in. Being inexperienced, I take longer than most employees. The shift manager rolls her eyes. I also learn a valuable lesson: always check the valve connected to the hose at least five freaking times before removing it from the holder. It’s very loose; and just nudging the filtering machine is enough to turn it on. I discovered this after accidentally hosing my exposed right shin with oil. Luckily, thanks to my fire paranoia, it hadn’t been heated for a good ten or fifteen minutes. All it did was hurt like the dickens and leave a red mark that only remained for a few hours. It’s a good thing that the vat had been off for so long. If it hadn’t, this could have easily been a third degree burn and hospitalization. I would likely have been accused by the company of being careless. M later tells me it’s not a big deal. She’s done it before.
A part is delivered for the ice cream/shake machine. M comes in on her day off to fix it. She brings her four-year old daughter, C, with her. As M is fixing the machine, C is given free reign of the store. In other words; a toddler was running around the office, break room, stockroom… and KITCHEN. I watch, horrified, as the child squeals with delight while zipping by within two feet of the grill and fryers. As I’m having visions of Extra Crispy Toddler, the other employees are giggling and encouraging her play. It makes me wonder just how often this child visits the store and uses the kitchen as a playroom. I end up risking injury to myself while protecting this child, who had no business being there in the first place.
This is not the job training that I had expected.
J tells me that what happens in the kitchen, stays in the kitchen.
Day Four: I’m working 4 – 7 pm. The schedule says “Cleaning”. As soon as I arrive, M asks how close I live. I tell her two miles. “Do you drive?” “I don’t have a car…” It turns out that M had wanted me to wear normal clothing, but had forgotten to call and tell me. I learn that we have an inspection next week; and the store is receiving a deep clean. I have my son and my mother-in-law run me a pair of pants. Due to the uniform gapping between my breasts, I already have a shirt underneath.
That night isn’t so bad. I am given a Magic Eraser (oh, I’m sorry… a “power pad”) and told to clean the grease off the walls around the walk-in refrigerator. It’s so grimy that the pad is destroyed halfway through. I was more afraid of being up on the ladder, however. I’m afraid of heights, and other employees aren’t especially careful when rushing by.
My next task is to clean the area inside the walk-in by the door. Thankfully, I had left my coat at the end of my last shift. I scrub with a scrubber pad, a “power pad”, and a plastic bristle scrub brush and degreaser. I end up having to resort to using a plastic knife to scrape at the built-up filth.
Please, God; tell me that little fluffy gray bit that I just saw go under the food racks was just a ball of dust.
Day Five: Four and a half hours. After one shift of watching and one of being supervised, I’m opening on my own with A; a manager that I had never met. Although she seems nice enough, she’s a bit off-putting. Hell; the woman is an Amazon. She also feels that my training has been thorough enough that I don’t need any help. When I’m late with cooking the food, she makes sure that I know about it. When I’m running behind with the vat filtering, she makes sure that I know about it. If I’m behind on ANYTHING, she makes sure that I know about it. As much as I like A as a human, her employee relations could use some work.
At least she had someone else make the damn burritos.
Day Six: Four and a half hours. Shoot me now. G, another employee, called out. She was my only hope of help until 10 am. That’s three hours!! E and I do our best to keep up, but inevitably fall behind. We have no backup. No other employees answer their phones or return E’s calls. Of course, E is frustrated that I, a new employee, can’t pick up the slack.
Thankfully, G shows up two hours later. I guess her emergency wasn’t so urgent. I get sent to my nemeses, the fry vats and filter. After I’m done, I’m told that I need to always have the vats finished within an hour; even if I’m emptying one and replacing the oil (which only happens every ten days at the earliest – enjoy that next order of fries). This is after not even working there a week yet.
M calls that afternoon. Can I work a split shift the next day? The second shift would be cleaning. No big. “Sure. Do you want me to just wear street clothes again?” I ask. There’s a pause. When M speaks again, she sounds genuinely confused and concerned. “…No… I just want you to wear regular clothes…” I don’t laugh. She’s apparently serious. “Okay. I’ll come in wearing REGULAR clothes.” Once the call has ended, I laugh hysterically… until I realize that this woman is allowed to make executive decisions that can affect the health and safety of her employees.
Day Seven: Four and a half hours. Fuck it all. I’m still too slow for E’s liking, and she lets me have it. Not only do I have more items added to my morning duties (without additional time), but she berates me in front of a fellow employee and customers. She informs me that I’ve been there long enough that there is no excuse for being any slower or less knowledgeable than any other employee in the store. She insults everything from how I stock the store to how I wrap sandwiches. Customers look embarrassed. G smirks, and offers no help. E then orders me to cook more eggs. We had run out, nobody informed me, and a customer ordered several egg sandwiches. I cook the eggs and set the metal egg ring to the side. I’m apparently still too slow, because E tells me to pick up the pace. I reach for my spatula while rushing. I know I should have looked; but I was still upset over being dressed down, and panicking over getting shit done. My hand comes down on the metal egg ring that had just come off the grill. I immediately pull my hand away and yank off the glove. E is still calling for the eggs. I get them into their container, then inform her that I burned my hand and needed to examine it. “Put another glove on. We don’t have time for that. We’re already behind because of you.” I’m then quickly sent to filter the vats. While the gloves usually protect from most of the heat, my already burned hand feels like it’s on fire. E then informs me that she will not document what happened, as it’s not a real injury. G tells me I’m making something out of nothing. After all, she gets burned every day.
I have a full-blown anxiety attack on the way home. Once my mother-in-law sees my hand, she covers it with aloe. Thankfully, it seems to be treated in time. It does swell. It turns red and shiny. Parts look crispy. It hurts to open fully. But, it’s not blistered. I avoided scarring. I think.
I still go in for my three-hour cleaning shift. After all, I think, I can still scrub with one hand; and it’s more money on the paycheck. Instead, I’m greeted by the franchise owner; Al. He hands me a few rags and a bottle of degreaser; then tells me to open the cabinets under the fry vats and clean the grease. I just can’t get away from those fucking vats. I open the first cabinet and already feel pretty grossed out. Everything is covered with a layer of old, hardened vegetable oil that is at least three millimeters thick. I can almost hear it laughing at the degreaser. I’m given a putty knife to scrape it out. Of course, I had the luck to burn my dominant hand. When I couldn’t keep a good grip on the putty knife, Al asked why. I told him about the burn. He looked at my hand and said that E was right; there was no point in documenting it unless it had been a REAL burn. I’m then sent back to the same task. I scrape at least a full cup’s worth of crud from the bottom of every vat. As I’m doing this, people are still using the fryers above me. I have hot oil drop on me at least three times. I’m glad I’m wearing pants this time. By the way; did you know that vegetable oil will turn green with age? I didn’t either – nor did I know about the rat trap that nearly snapped closed on my arm.
Day Eight: Tonight was supposed to just be another cleaning night. My uniform is in the wash. 3 – 8pm; that’s it. After that, I have two days off to think of what to do. It’s not that we don’t need the money. We really do. However, I can’t bring in money if I’m constantly hurt and treated like garbage. I was happier doing customer service for a cellular phone carrier – and that’s saying something. Even my mother-in-law, who had pressured me into accepting this job more than most, told me, “No job is worth killing yourself for. This place isn’t worth it. There really is no saving this job.” All of my in-laws and my husband agree. This job has to go. It’s too dangerous.
At noon, I miss a call from M. She leaves a message to call back, but doesn’t tell me what she wants. I try calling six times. With the sixth try, I get E; who tells me she doesn’t know what M wants. After I push her to find out, she asks M (who seems to have been standing next to her). “Oh, yeah. Our closer called out. Can you wash dishes tonight?” I explain that my uniform is in the wash. “That’s alright. You can go home to change or… whatever.” “Well… what time would I be getting out?” “11:30, at the latest.” Why not? It’s just dishes… I am, however, amused that a “horrible” employee was called in for extra hours twice in a week.
My first cleaning task is to clean the walk-in freezer floor. Again, I’m glad I’d left my coat. I’m handed some cleaner in a bottle and a scrub brush. The floor is covered in congealed blood and frozen, smashed fruit. Spray and a brush won’t cut it. Back to the trusty putty knife… M tells me to take my time and “make it pretty”. B, her supervisor, keeps popping in and telling me to hurry. M comes back and says to make it pretty. They switch back and forth for the whole hour that I’m in there. Keep in mind, the freezer is sub-zero; and I have neither gloves nor hat. My toes hurt from the cold. B finally comes in with a disgusted look. She tells me I’ve spent enough time on it, and to dry mop and come out. “It’ll have to do.” I’ve only removed a quarter of the crud.
At least my toes can finally thaw.
My next task is to use a wire bristled brush to clean the wheels on all of the equipment. The grease is so thick that some of the wheels can’t even move. Some can’t even be unlocked. I am also, again, risking hot grease and oil raining from the sky.
I take my meal break. I change into the uniform that my hubby brought, per M’s request. I’m one minute late. Despite using what is supposed to be my time preparing for more work with them (that I saved their asses accepting), I’m criticized for it. I go into the back to wash dishes. This isn’t just dishes. This is also every piece of removable equipment from the kitchen. I again receive eye rolls if I don’t know where a dish or piece of equipment goes. I leave, with my husband, at 12:09. He has to wake up for work in five hours.
I understand that fast food isn’t meant to be a career. I’m not arguing that it is, by any means. However, it’s also sometimes the only job that a person can get in this economy. Most think that it’s an industry kept alive through teenage labor. It’s not. Most employees are in their late twenties, thirties, and forties. The median age is 28. Most think it is the domain of the uneducated. It’s not. There are many in the industry who have already completed higher forms of education, but couldn’t get a job in their chosen field. According to http://jobs.aol.com/articles/2013/08/13/fourth-adult-fast-food-workers-are-parents/, a third of fast food employees have some college education. I’ve also heard it said that fast food workers should only get minimum wage because all they do is ask, “Do you want fries with that?” and flip burgers. No. We are cooks, customer service, maintenance, housekeeping, stockers, and sometimes even food quality specialists – all wrapped up in one person. Yes, PERSON. Believe it or not, food workers are actual human beings; not biological machines. Fast food is extremely physically demanding. It requires you to be fast on your feet, and to remember food safety guidelines. You must be patient with customers that sneer at you and treat you like you are less than human. You are expected to complete full-time tasks with part-time hours. Injuries are the expectation. It’s not a job for the unintelligent or the weak.
“Well, why don’t you just get a REAL job?” you ask. Gee; the thought never occurred to me… *rolling eyes*
Yet; when employees ask for livable wages, the country flips. Fast food workers are too lazy and unskilled, everyone says. Lazy? In what part of my week was I being lazy? I was expected to be a fully knowledgeable, proficient jack of all trades immediately with next to no training. This expectation is common in the food industry. These jobs are ridiculously demanding, nonsensically dangerous, and ridiculously unfulfilling. While you are sitting behind a desk in a nice, air-conditioned office; fast food workers are LITERALLY pouring blood, sweat, and tears into their work so that YOU have the convenience of a ready-made meal. They are dealing with inhumane working conditions and injuring themselves so that you can have the burger that you don’t feel like cooking. They are making life easier on YOU; and how do you respond? By treating them as if they are less than human, and telling them that they don’t deserve to have the ability to take care of their basic needs. You tell them they don’t deserve more pay, and sure as hell don’t deserve federal assistance. You call them greedy because they want to live. Instead of crying out that giving them enough wages to meet their most basic needs will destroy the country, I want you to tell the truth.
You hate food workers. Period.
You don’t see food workers as REAL people; only a convenience that makes your life more comfortable.
You enjoy treating food workers horribly and demanding that they continue working their asses off in inhumane work conditions for little more than pocket change because it makes you feel better than them. After all; at least YOU aren’t a food worker.
You enjoy their suffering, and will stop at nothing to make sure that it never ends.
Stop claiming that you love fellow man if this is what you want for food workers. You don’t love fellow man. You only love people who are just like you; and to Hell with the rest.