Two Years Below the Arches — My Time at McDonald’s

A little more than two years ago I found myself looking for an actual job. Age limited my choices considerably, narrowing the local prospects down to either Walmart or McDonald’s. Walmart weeded me out of the process rather quickly, but McDonald’s gave me a job. What I wanted from McDonald’s was part time work to help defray the bills while I built up my other projects again. The store manager, a young lady I’ll call M, explained their system to me rather honestly. Because I had restaurant experience they’d hire me in spite of my age, but I would only get hours if I could actually do the job. Firing people costs the company money, so in most cases they don’t do that. They just cut hours back to nearly nothing until people quit. If I wanted the work, I’d have to prove myself.

To which I inwardly replied, eh, it’s a fast food joint, not a real restaurant, how hard can it be?

I found out right away that I’m not as good at making sandwiches as the younger people McD hires, who seem to have eidetic memories for sandwich assembly and pick it up immediately. I doubt that I’d have been able to do that even when I was seventeen, because I have no interest in sandwiches and less interest in the McDonald’s menu. My lack of sandwich instinct turned out to be a serious problem, and for a while it appeared that I’d have a very short career at McD, but I am so very good at other things in the kitchen that I gradually gained respect and earned hours. In the beginning, it actually cost me money to work there. After two years and a couple of raises I was making slightly better than minimum wage but less than I made at semi-skilled labor in 1975. Forty hours a week at McD barely paid my bills, and exhausted me completely. My plan to work part time went completely wrong, and I found myself stuck in a crappy job once again. That happens to many full time employees at McD. The job is like working for a coal mine and shopping at the company store, you never make enough to pay bills and cut loose.

Now that I don’t work there any more, I don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about the place. At times the particular store where I worked seemed like the best restaurant I’d ever worked for. When we had a good team from store manager on down, it was fun. The kitchen was clean, the place was humming and we cranked out sandwiches like crazy. At other times I was ashamed to walk in the door and found myself compensating for lazy employees and managers who didn’t give a crap, and wondering why the health department never came around for inspections. In that way, it was a typical restaurant, for the most part a reflection of the personality of the general manager.

In my opinion many of McDonald’s problems stem from the pressure they place upon store managers to increase profit. If you replace a GM at McD you’re expected to churn out more money than the previous boss did. If your predecessor failed, your job will be a lot easier than if your predecessor worked hard and moved on to a better company. If you follow a good boss, you’ll have to find ways to cut costs, and that means doing things in a worse way. At McD the standards set by corporate executives only come into play during corporate inspections. At any other time, normal operation means working at quality levels the corporation officially does not tolerate. The pressure to make more and more money by spending less and less money makes the drop in quality inevitable. The food quality you get at McDonald’s is not the food quality you see in the ads.

What I will remember most about McDonald’s is not the many good people I worked with and the days I felt proud of what we accomplished. There were days like that, and I have much respect for the hard-working intelligent people who’ve been trapped by the system. What I will remember is the overall unfairness of the place, the blatant discrepancies between what the company officially expects and what it unofficially forces. It makes me wonder what happened to this country, how companies like this one can prosper by exploiting their employees and customers. McDonald’s and Walmart are not the only examples of this, but they are certainly two great examples, and companies like these now form the backbone of American business. No one understands how serious this is until they find themselves in that situation, one of the growing number of working poor who barely survive until a real crisis throws them completely out of the picture. At McDonald’s an employee is a cheap machine part. When one breaks, you get another one from the stockroom and plug it in.

Three Things to Remember if You Plan to Work for McDonald’s:

Thing One:

McDonald’s is a feudal society with two classes, aristocracy and peasant. General managers and above constitute the aristocracy. You can tell them from the peasants because they drive new cars and go on vacation a lot. The rest of the people in the company make minimum wage or a little bit more and often work short hours to enhance company profits. If you’re a peasant at McDonald’s, you’ll need a second income or you will run out of money. If you don’t have a second job (something the company actually recommends) you will lack funds for essentials like heating your home in the winter and you won’t survive a crisis such as an extended illness or the loss of a car.

Thing Two:

You’ll be pressured to work for free. Some managers are open about this, rating you partly on your willingness to work off the clock. Some remind you that it’s not allowed but never change the system. As part of the opening crew I was told to report to work at 3:45 a.m. for security drill. Most days we were all in the building 15 minutes early and everyone went to work right away, even though you didn’t get paid for your work until you clocked in at 4 a.m. The shift manager told me I didn’t have to work for free, but the workload was so tight that to get your job done in time to serve customers, you needed that extra 15 minutes. It was easier to work for free than to get behind. When I moved to the maintenance job at the store my trainer told me to arrive 45 minutes early to begin setting up equipment and cleaning the lot. It was either work for free or get behind. I chose to start when I clocked in and I was always behind. Management had no idea how long anything takes to do and would frequently just pile another job on your already impossible list of jobs, adding three more hours of work without allowing extra time or assistance. I skipped breaks, skipped meals, pushed myself as hard as I could, and didn’t even come close to doing the work assigned to me. Many people dealt with this same situation by working off the clock, in order to keep their jobs.

Thing Three:

Don’t expect good training if you work at McDonald’s. The corporation provides plenty of training materials but you’ll never see more than a tiny sample. Training costs the company money, so you only get enough to indicate to corporate that you had training time, and then you’re put on the job. It’s sink or swim, and actually most people can swim from the start. I had problems making sandwiches, but I had no problems adapting to other parts of the production process. Nearly everyone hired can fit into the system somewhere. The problem with this is food safety. People come and go like crazy, and most of them never learn the basics of hygiene or understand the safety essentials of work in a restaurant kitchen. If you don’t bring good work habits with you, you won’t pick them up there. I was fortunate to have learned food safety in Army kitchens, where the first thing you’re taught is that disease has killed more soldiers than war. Army kitchens are clean. I’d never worry about eating Army food, but I won’t eat at McD. If you eat there, stick to what’s deep-fried and bring your own drinks.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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