I was in high school the last time I made minimum wage. I earned my first pay bump by coming to work a few minutes early, wearing my uniform, completing the menial tasks assigned to me, and displaying a very slight, but sometimes moderate, enthusiasm for my mundane job. To really solidify my chances at a raise, I refrained from stealing, insulting customers (to their faces), or smoking weed behind the dumpster out back. I stayed heroically committed to this strategy for a while, and for my efforts I was elevated above minimum wage, never to return.
But that was the ancient past. Over a decade ago. Back then, there were only two ways for a minimum wage fast food grunt to change his financial situation: 1) Be a semi-functional, semi-punctual, semi-conscious human who does his duty and has a vaguely positive attitude, and get a raise. 2) Don't be that, and get fired.
Note that the second strategy would rarely result in immediate termination. I worked with many people who were aggressively dysfunctional, yet managed to cling onto employment for months because they were, at a minimum, warm bodies who could cut a pizza into 8 slices without severing an artery in the process (usually). Sometimes even these types would get raises, although eventually they would quit when they realized more responsibility comes attached to more money. Most of these people are now on welfare or in Congress.
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It never occurred to me to explore the third option, which has become quite popular in recent years: Ask that the government snap its magical wizard fingers and double the minimum wage overnight. Of course, even if it did occur to me, I wouldn't have been able to pursue it. My dad would have, shall we say, reacted unfavorably if I told him I was ditching my job to hold a "Fight For 15" sign in the parking lot. His colorful response, I imagine, would've involved many disapproving adjectives, along with a stern lecture about "hard work" and "discipline" and "character" (his favorite words), and a helpful reminder that if I'm old enough to skip work and protest, I'm old enough to start paying rent. And that would have been the end of my brief experiment with political activism.
But I don't think this disincentive would've been necessary. As much a whiny teenage brat as I was, I still didn't think I deserved 15 bucks an hour, or its early 2000's equivalent, for an entry level gig at a fast food joint. I knew I was doing a job that demanded very little of me, and I knew all I had to do was tuck my shirt in and not openly scowl at the customers and already I would separate myself from 80 percent of my coworkers. It would've seemed absurd that I could make good money doing a job that requires no education except for a work permit from the guidance counselor, and no training except for a 45 minute orientation video that includes nuanced instructions like "wear pants" and "don't light your hair on fire."
I knew - and again, I was not an exceptional kid by any means, so if I could figure this out, anyone can - that if I wanted to make an actual "livable wage," I had to climb the ladder a few rungs.
It seems many current minimum wage workers fail to grasp this fundamental concept. At least that's the charitable interpretation. Less charitably, you might say they understand just fine, but are driven by laziness, selfishness and a fantastically bloated sense of entitlement. However you interpret their actions, again thousands of them abandoned their posts last week and took to the streets, demanding that the State hand them a massive pay increase, not because they've earned it, but because they "deserve" it.
Thankfully, not all fast food workers are on board with this new "Give Us Salaries Commensurate With What Paramedics Are Paid Because We're Special And We Know How To Spread Mayonnaise On A Bun" movement. On Friday, a short but glorious video clip surfaced, showing a Taco Bell employee kicking a group of protesters out of her restaurant so she could carry on with her duties. "This is a job that I'm trying to do," she said. "You may leave the building."
I don't know anything about this woman, but already I can say she deserves a higher salary than all of those protesters, most of whom should be fired anyway. She just wants to do her job, which is more than can be said for the people holding picket signs. And I doubt she especially enjoys her work. I'm betting that serving burritos to a hungry herd of impatient customers every day isn't her idea of a rollicking good time. But it's the job she was hired to do, so she does it. If you find that logic confusing, you need to grow up.
But one moment in her brief encounter with the protesters particularly stood out. At the very beginning of the video, one of them curiously told her it was "a day of action." Then, when they were rebuffed, they applauded themselves and went back outside to continue the "action" of spending the workday doing nothing. Many media reports have used this same strange phrase to describe the protests - "a day of action."
Calling that "a day of action" is almost as ridiculous as calling it a "fight for 15." The woman rolling her eyes at the protesters and trying to get back to the duties at hand is the one engaged in a "day of action," a "fight" for something better. Chanting slogans and whining to news cameras is not "taking action," anymore than my daughter is taking action when she cries for gummy bears in the checkout aisle.
Here's my recommendation to these disgruntled fast food workers: If you truly want to take action and fight for a better life, follow this simple step-by-step guide. It's the same guide that responsible young woman at Taco Bell is following. It's perhaps not as fun as protesting, but I believe it will prove more fruitful.
Step 1: Go to work.
Work, especially menial, mindless work, is tedious and unpleasant. I know. I was a telemarketer for a while. You haven't known "tedious and mindless" until you've parked your butt in a chair at a call station for 8 hours and read a sales script to 117 prospective customers, 107 of whom treat you like you just broke into their home and drop kicked the dog. I was paid more than minimum wage for this job, but I only got paid when I was actively calling. If I got up to pee, get a drink, eat lunch, breathe, cry silently in the bathroom and beg the Lord to deliver me from this ungodly torment, etc., I was not paid. It was awful. I hated it with the burning fury of a thousand hypergiant suns, but it was my job.
Telemarketing companies will hire literally anyone. You don't even need to be human. I actually worked with a ferret for a while before he was moved to upper management. Like many low income jobs, they have trouble finding people who will simply come to work every day. They have a core nucleus of reliable employees, and a revolving door of drifters who breeze in and out and sometimes back in again. Just come to work regularly and you'll already be Employee of the Month.
The turnover rate in the fast food industry is just as high. The roster at your local Wendy's changes by the day. Almost everyone is an extremely temporary employee, either because they're working for the summer until school starts again, or because they're working until next Friday when they decide to skip work to catch the new Avengers movie on opening night. Whatever their reasons, all you have to do to set yourself apart is show up consistently.
Step 2: Work well.
Back to my telemarketing days. Some of my coworkers did more than show up. There was no dress code enforced - you could come to work in a bathrobe and slippers if you wanted to - but they wore business attire anyway. And when they sat down at their desks to make their calls, they didn't get back up. They never took breaks (except for the required lunch break), they never complained, and they never wasted time. They made three calls in the time it took me to make one. They took hold of this robotic, humdrum job and found a way to be good at it. And they earned more. And they deserved to earn more.
I'm not a terribly frequent fast food customer, but I notice the same dynamic at those restaurants. Often you get the cashier who growls and grumbles, barely exerting the energy to form English words. He messes up your very simple order and then cops an attitude when you ask for it to be corrected. He moves with the speed and purpose of a sedated walrus. He hates his job, he hates you, he hates life, and he wants you to know it. He's still employed because, like I said, anyone can stay employed in this kind of job so long as they have a moderate attendance record, but he's making absolutely no effort to perform his duties well. He's making a negative effort, in fact. Almost like he's trying to do it poorly. He's like a vacuum of negativity and lethargy and resentment, and you leave the restaurant feeling like part of your soul has been sucked into his void and obliterated (or maybe that's just the indigestion).
We've all encountered this type. He doesn't deserve 15 dollars an hour. He doesn't deserve 15 dollars a day. He doesn't deserve a job at all, but he has one because the bar is so unfathomably low.
But then there's the other type. A lot of them work at Chick-fil-A. He greets the customers enthusiastically. He seems happy to be doing his job. He might be faking it, but he fakes it convincingly. He speaks clearly. He pays attention to what he's doing so he probably won't get your order wrong, but if he does, he apologizes and makes it right. He operates with speed and precision. He puts a smile on the customer's face. He makes you feel welcomed. You leave thinking, "Wow, I might have to come back here again."
He's doing his job well. If he combines reliability with this kind of quality, and if he does so consistently, it is an absolute guarantee that he will be in line for raises and promotions. He's made himself undeniable. He will climb the ladder at his job, and in life.
So be that guy.
Step 3: Find a better job.
Of course, there are only a certain number of promotions available at a fast food place, or any other minimum wage job. Money is finite. This is a concept the "Fight for 15" folks don't comprehend. Money doesn't grow on trees. Actually, it's mostly made of cotton, so it grows in fields. But the franchisee who owns your restaurant has a limited supply of it. He's probably not a billionaire traveling the world on his private jet, contrary to reports. He owns your KFC, but not all of the KFCs in the country. He makes more money than you because he's earned more and he's more important, but he isn't swimming in a pool of gold coins. He has many expenses. Payroll is just one of them.
So even if you're certified the best employee in the known universe, there is still a relatively low income ceiling. You can try to work your way up through management where the ceiling is considerably higher, but if you don't want to pursue that kind of career, then eventually you need to find a new job.
A couple of things about that: First, your chances of finding more gainful employment will be significantly improved if you follow the first two steps for a good chunk of time. If you're a no-call/no-show after 16 days on the job, most employers won't be interested in you. (But telemarketing firms will still take you. You could kill someone at your old job and they'd still take you.)
Second, better jobs are usually harder jobs. That's why they're better. They require more sacrifice, more dedication, more skill, and often more training or education. They can also be more physically demanding and dangerous. A Facebook friend left a comment on my page about his friend Jeff who works in the timber industry and spends his 40 hour work weeks lugging 25 tons of lumber a day. He's seen coworkers gruesomely injured and killed on the job. He makes 16.75 an hour. He earns it in sweat, blood, and tears.
Roofers work long hours in the hot sun and risk serious injury in the process. They make an average of 37 thousand a year. On the low end, they earn about 24 thousand, which means, if the "Fight for 15" folks are successful, some of these laborers toiling away in the heat, performing a necessary service, providing something that people need, putting their lives on the line, would make less than the kid throwing your sliders into a greasy bag at White Castle. To make matters worse, the sudden nationwide wage increase would send the cost of living through the roof (pun intended), effectively creating a pay decrease for roofers and other blue collar workers. And all to meet the preposterous demands of a bunch of 17-year-old burger flippers.
That's not fair, just, compassionate or wise, on any level. So the better option for yourself and for society is that you go out and find a job where you can earn the pay you desire. As much as we hear about the people who "can't find employment," many of these hard labor jobs can't fill positions fast enough.
If hard labor isn't your thing, there are 50 thousand other options. You might have to relocate, you might have to get additional training, you might have to go out on a limb and do something bold and different, but nobody who is ambitious, hard working, creative, and competent will be stuck in a minimum wage fast food position forever. That just doesn't happen.
If you're sitting around and waiting for the minimum to be increased, you're on the path to stagnation and disappointment. Even if you get what you want, you'll still be stuck at the minimum, and the minimum will still feel like the minimum because the cost of all goods and services will rise with the tide. If, on the other hand, you're devoted to earning a higher income and a more fulfilling and challenging career, and you're willing to do what it takes and make the sacrifices that are required, you'll get there. I promise.
But if you aren't willing to follow these steps, you should get precisely what you deserve: nothing.
The choice is up to you.
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