Have a Nice Day!: My Summer in Fast Food

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Have a Nice Day!: My Summer in Fast Food

Tom Florczak

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Imagine going to work for eight hours a day and giving every day your 110 percent. With no room for error, you must mass-produce meals to serve in seconds. You are expected to serve perfectly with perfect timing. And at the end of the day, you can equate your job as a fast food worker to a robot in a car factory.

First, let’s talk wages. There have been protests, particularly within the last year, for a $15/hr wage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the hourly mean wage of the whole restaurant industry is $8.74/hr. Traditionally unionized food industries, such as grocery stores, offer an hourly mean wage of $10.77/hr in comparison.

According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, older workers (age 20 ) make in the same income bracket as younger workers (age 16 ) in the fast food industry. There is no difference in wages of those with more experience in the fast food industry outside of differences in position. According to the Center of Economic and Policy Research, about 70 percent of young workers earn between $7.26 and $10.09 compared to 68% for older workers earning the same amount.

Additionally, fast food workers are stigmatized. They come from diverse backgrounds, yet in my experience, many people tend to think of fast food workers as, more or less, lazy parasites. They are unwilling to ‘work hard’. They don’t want to further their education. They aren’t ‘good enough’ to get a job anywhere else.

That simply isn’t true.

This summer, I worked the 6 a.m.-2 p.m. or the 7 a.m.-3 p.m. shift at a corporate store of a massive, multinational fast food chain. Contrary to popular belief, health violations are rare and the store’s management staff treats everyone with complete respect. But the staff isn’t the problem. It’s the fast food industry’s labor model. It strives for low cost, assembly line production, while providing top-notch customer service and doing more with less workers.

For example, corporate policy dictates every role must be filled at peak hours, but in order to drive down costs, corporate will turn a blind-eye to manpower shortages. In the mornings, I had to serve the drive-through and prepare every beverage imaginable including different teas, sodas, smoothies, and coffees. My partner for those mornings, a 26-year old high school graduate with only a month more experience, had to run food from the grill area to my window while keeping hash browns constantly prepared to serve. While I never worked in the grill area, I’ve seen the workers move with maximum, mechanistic efficiency. For example, one day at peak lunch (noon to 2 pm), about 220 cars came through the drive-through, probably around 80 or 100 people came inside, and the grill produced close to 600 items. That’s 5 items in one minute!

The stress from micromanaging every movement takes a tremendous toll on the body. My store manager who has worked for the company for 17 years confirmed similar experiences to mine. Your knees and feet shriek in pain from darting around a cramped back area all day. When the work day ends, all you want to do is sleep. You’re so stressed from the pressure that after-work napping turns into a stress-filled nightmare about work. The biggest relief of the nap is waking up, because you realize it was just a nightmare.

Fast food measures time not in minutes, but in seconds. Go to any fast food establishment and try to find a monitor divided into little tickets with orders. In one of the corners, a timer slowly ticks upward by the second. According to my summer employer, peak time orders should take no longer than 45 seconds from order-taking to receiving food. It was not uncommon to have corporate-set goals of serving 68 to 74 cars in an hour for breakfast. Contrary to the stereotype of fast-food-workers as lazy, on a normal day, we would beat our goals by as many as ten cars extra. That is less than a car a minute, and like machines, we are worked to meet times that seem inhuman when every worker has two or three simultaneous roles and human error slows things down.

Working fast food is difficult and the pay is low in order to drive down costs. Perhaps the only redeeming qualities are the lessons you learn from the stress and the amazing coworkers who defy stereotypes of minimum wage workers. These workers deserve a raise, a better work environment, and a union to keep their employers accountable. After all, these workers are not lazy, rather, they beat records like an Olympian everyday and prove their hard work in 45 seconds or less.