Fast Food

I have a dream that people will stop fucking whining all the time. This week, it’s the “huge” population of vastly underpaid fast food workers. They’re on strike for higher wages, except it’s not really a strike. They just didn’t show up for work so the press would cover it. It’s interesting that in the USA Today story, it mentioned a couple of restaurants didn’t actually close completely and others re-opened as soon as the press left. In other words, this is actually a publicity stunt since they are not organized. Actually, I assume it is organized by the unions who are desperate for new members now that union rules have destroyed the auto industry. I also assume that even though the workers aren’t educated enough to get jobs outside the fast food industry, they are intelligent enough to realize if they’re posturing on the front steps, they’re not getting paid.

Some of the whiners on strike probably haven’t noticed the smarter workers just went to work, because they need the money. They probably haven’t also noticed that the store can run without them because anybody off the street can work fast food. They won’t do it well, but once you learn the motions, it’s not a difficult job, if you can deal with the tedium.

The strikers all need to shut the hell up and get my  damn order right when I go through the drive-thru. Then, they might be worth minimum wage.

If a customer can walk into a fast food restaurant off the street and order their own food by pushing colorful buttons on a register that’s just been turned around backwards, you are not a highly skilled worker. If a customer can walk into a restaurant, choose a steak from a cooler and cook it himself on a grill, you are not a highly-skilled worker. If you can’t feed your family of six on minimum wage, you need to make more than minimum wage, or perhaps you shouldn’t have a family of six. The real issue you have is that once you have a family of six, it’s a bad time to find out you can’t afford them.

If the Churches that are organizing the protests would just provide day care for their members instead, some of the protesters wouldn’t have the issue, and some of their members could have baby-sitting jobs. Problem-solving is better than complaining, people.

I’m still trying to figure out what minimum wage really represents (if anything) – not fiscally, since it’s $7.25 per hour in the USA which is easily researched, but in reality. The Department of Labor just says minimum wage is the least you can legally pay someone. It doesn’t say how that number was calculated. If you work minimum wage forty hours per week for a year, do you make the poverty level? Are you at the seventeenth percentile or some Congressional number? I have a feeling it’s just a number somebody made up at one point, that has been occasionally adjusted for inflation over time when somebody needed re-election.

I finished that last paragraph, and I decided to do the math.

The minimum wage times forty hours times fifty weeks (we’ll assume even the grossly underpaid need a vacation) is $14,500. The poverty level for a household of two is $15,510, according to the US Government statistics. So, if a married couple both worked fast food jobs full-time, they would be above the poverty level. In fact, they could afford a child or two, according to the poverty tables.

I wouldn’t recommend it, since kids are expensive and unpredictable.

So, if the strikers claim they are living in poverty, they’re basically lying, unless they have more than four people in the household or only one worker. It’s also possible they’re not working full-time.  Of course, lately, all the news about people not working full-time has been about companies avoiding paying benefits. I’m sure any of these are the case for some of them. Frankly, that is their problem, not the government’s. Well, the avoiding benefits problem was caused by the government, but that’s another argument.

My assumption on the minimum wage is that it’s not supposed to be a living wage, it’s just a number. However, it’s a number that affects pricing of everything, since it helps businesses calculate their minimum costs for labor.

Before I get the usual hate mail. I will say that I worked in fast food. I worked at Wendy’s for two years in high school and part of one summer in college before I found a job at a liquor store which had much better benefits – discounted liquor beats cheap cheeseburgers.

Working fast food is tedious. You have to learn the proper way to make all the menu items, you have to learn the lingo, you have to learn how long you can keep items before they are trashed (french fries have a shelf life of five minutes), so if you make too much, you’re wasting food which pisses off the manager and if you make too little, the line keeps growing which pisses off the customer, you have to do the same thing over and over unless you change stations, you have to cook items to a customer’s specifications and you have to make sure everything you produce is pretty much the same – all quarter pound cheeseburgers should be the same size, for example. In other words, it’s just like working in a professional kitchen as a line cook – for anyone that watches Food Network or MasterChef or Top Chef.

I am not saying fast food is the equivalent of top-quality restaurant food. I’m just saying you go through the same motions. (I remember Anthony Bourdain has actually said immigrants (legal and otherwise) run the kitchens of NYC. So, maybe instead of working at Burger King, you should just apply at Les Halles.)

Working at Wendy’s is actually a fun job as long as you are surrounded by your peers – I worked evening and weekend shifts with almost all my neighborhood friends – and as long as you’re not working full-time.

That said, I did work during the day in the summers and I did work full-time whenever I was off from school. I noticed that the older people who worked days were usually much crankier than the people I worked with in my age group. They were also much more protective of their hours, but they didn’t seem to enjoy their time at work.

I remember thinking at that point – “These people have made a bad career choice, and they know it.”

I had no intention of being a line cook for my entire life. My dream at that point was to be a store manager.

I was blessed by managers who either were willing to train an eager recruit or just hated doing paperwork. By the time I was seventeen, I was regularly closing out registers, ordering supplies and I was in charge of new-hire training for all of Dallas. In other words, I did more than was expected of a regular worker. I wouldn’t say I worked my ass off, because some of my friends did just as much work as I did – and a couple moved to another restaurant as managers. I just did more than the minimum. I also got raises – not much, but enough to be more than just symbolic. Again, more than the minimum.

I was one of the few people in my group that figured out that doing the manager’s paperwork was a good way to be excused from cleaning the grill or running the Bissell through the dining room.  (Either that, or everyone else really hated paperwork.) This is one of the important lessons required to have someone suddenly desire to go from blue-collar to white-collar. (Ironically, the Wendy’s shirts were blue and white, so everybody was both. I just realized that.) That was an “ah-ha” moment – “Wait. I can sit in the back in air conditioning, and read a form to a woman on the phone and I don’t have to scrub floors?”

My parents were not pleased with my career plan. At all. They did not consider becoming a fast-food manager a valued career. So, they squashed it. Loudly and cruelly (at least it seemed at the time.)

If I were a Wendy’s manager today, I would have a lot less stress in my life. Mainly, because I could not afford a wife, two cars, a house and five sickly dogs. So, I would be alone in an apartment near my store, because that’s all I could afford. Occasionally, I would try to sleep with one of my co-workers, as long as she was legal, even though that would cause complications down the line. It would be a rather painful (yet quiet) existence.

Hopefully, had I become a store manager instead of going to college, I would be at least a regional manager by now. Then, I might be able to afford the wife and maybe a couple of sickly dogs. I doubt that I could have paid for my son’s college, though.

So, fast food is not a good long-term career. The first clue is that you don’t get paid very much. The second clue is that anything you are required to do you can learn in two hours on a Saturday morning from a seventeen-year old. This means the work is not very complex – and not very complex doesn’t pay well. The last clue has been automation – if they can build a register that anyone off the street can figure out without any training, then the employees running the registers are not very significant.

I understand the plight of people who didn’t make it through school and can only work fast food because it’s one of the few jobs that requires very little training (and it’s indoors, which is critical in Texas). However, as my parents wisely told me (quite loudly), it is not a career choice. It is supposed to be a job that you do while you are learning a skill so you can get a better job or start a career. If you never learned a skill, that’s why you only make minimum wage.

McDonald’s and Wendy’s et al make millions at the corporate level, but you have to remember that many of the restaurants where the workers now think they deserve more than an entry-level nurse are actually franchised operations (and company stores are being converted to franchises regularly) – and those local owners are not usually high margin operations. So, if you take a much higher percentage of the “vast income” from that store, that store is going to close. Then, you can multiply your hourly wage by anything you want, because anything times zero is still zero.

Next time you bitch about your wages, ask who owns your store. I worked for a company-owned store, one of the few in the area. Wendy’s is selling 72 Dallas restaurants to franchisees currently. So, it’s important to know. Corporations love franchises. You sell them logos, fixtures, building designs, and sometimes raw food. Then, you take a franchise fee and a percentage of all sales. It’s a lot less work than listening to under-skilled workers bitch about low wages.

If you work fast food and can’t afford to live in New York City, let me tell you – I know people with graduate degrees who make more than minimum wage that can’t afford to live in New York City. Move to Brooklyn, Jersey, or a Red State.

People deserve to be paid for their work. Some work is worth more than other work. If you are doing low-worth work, you will get paid a low wage. The government will make sure it is at least a minimum. That’s how it is. You need to do other work or more work. Bitching doesn’t make your work more worthwhile.

My memories of Wendy’s are very happy ones – it was a very happy place to work, as long as the workforce was a bunch of high school students from good schools who were working for date money (and to meet dates). Over the years, the store staff slowly migrated to people who had made fast food a career choice, usually by the sin of omission. (Like not planning, not finishing school, not using protection and suddenly having mouths to feed.)

As the staff changed from high school students working part-time to career fast food people working full-time, the mood changed. It became a much less happy place, for the staff and unfortunately, for the customers.

After a while, it was a pretty cranky place and nobody was really trying that hard. I would go in and count the inspection violations. It bothered me a lot to see the place fall down before my eyes.

Then, it closed. I drove by one day and it was gone. A few weeks later, it was a fried chicken place. It lasted a few years. Then, it was another chicken place, that lasted months. Now, it’s just there. So, now, people blame the location. It’s not the location.

Minimum wage is not the problem. Minimum motivation is the problem. I don’t think doubling these people’s wages is going to help with their motivation.

You have the right to work. You do not have the right to be rich. That you have to earn.

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