Camille Landry is a writer, activist, and social justice advocate who lives in Oklahoma City. This post is part of our “Neglected Oklahoma” series, which tells the stories of Oklahomans in situations where the basic necessities of life are hard to come by. These are real people and their stories are true (names have been changed to protect privacy).
We huddled over drinks in the corner of the restaurant, our voices low so the manager or his coworkers couldn’t hear us. He introduced me to coworkers as his cousin. “Talking bad about this place will get you fired quick!”
He talked fast because he gets only 30 minutes for lunch, on days when he works at least 6 hours — and a 15-minute break if he works less than that). He tells me he is 37. He has a 6-year-old son and an 18-month-old daughter. His wife works at a mall and attends school. “People think everybody who works here is a kid, but most of us are grown with kids,” he tells me. “Several people are retired – just trying to make ends meet.”
The median age of fast food workers is 29. Forty percent are 25 or older, 31 percent have some college, and more than 26 percent are parents raising children. One-third to half of them have more than one job. Sixty-eight percent of fast food workers are the primary income earners for their families.
Maurice used to provide maintenance for rental properties. He got reduced rent on one of the apartments. “We had to be very careful about how we spent our money but we managed to pay the bills,” he said. He got a traffic ticket but couldn’t afford to pay it. The fine doubled and a bench warrant was issued. He got stopped for a bad brake light; his insurance was expired. He spent several nights in jail, his license was suspended and his truck was impounded. He lost his job because he couldn’t get to the properties that his boss owned without his truck or a license. The family had to move. He can’t drive until he pays his fines plus a fee to reinstate his license. He lost his truck.
Now Maurice works at a well-known fast food restaurant – the only job he could find. He wants to work as many hours as he can but most weeks is allowed only 25 to 30 hours of work.
“My schedule is never the same from one week to the next. I can’t plan anything. I used to have another part-time job but I just couldn’t work out the schedules. And ordinary stuff like knowing when I can be home to take care of the kids and the house while my wife works or studies? – Forget it!”
“I make $7.55 per hour,” he said. “I started at minimum wage but I got a raise last month.” Maurice’s family receives food stamps, daycare assistance and Medicaid for his kids. Two parents working for less than $8/hour make so little that they can’t survive without help. Fifty-two percent of families of fast food workers receive assistance from a public program like Medicaid, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, according to a University of California Berkeley Labor Center and University of Illinois study. That’s compared to 25 percent of families in the workforce as a whole. Taxpayers foot the bill for $7 billion in support for fast food workers each year.
Benefits? “None. I’m not full time. We’ll be able to get Obamacare next year so at least I’ll have health coverage. I don’t have any at all right now.”
“At least you get all the burgers you can eat,” I joked. “Nope! I’d get fired if they caught me eating food, even the leftovers that we throw away when they get too old to sell. I have to buy the food I eat.” He is eligible for a couple thousand dollars a year in educational assistance and two paid holidays each year. He has no paid time off. “We are expected to show up, no matter how bad we feel.”
I asked him how much longer he intends to work at this place. He laughs. “At first I figured I’d work as many hours as I could for a couple months, get my license back and buy another truck, then get a better job. But every payday, I’m lucky if I have enough to pay my rent and the light bill. I had to go back to the judge to ask for more time to pay my fines.
“Heck, we can’t even afford to eat here. Our salaries barely pay the bills. There’s usually nothing left over, not even for a cheap hamburger.” Meanwhile, the top 15 fast food chains had a combined $115 billion in sales in 2012. The nation’s seven largest publicly traded fast-food companies paid out $53 million in salaries to their top executives and distributed $7.7 billion to shareholders in 2012, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project.
“We’re just trying to hang on until my wife gets her nursing certification and I can find a better job.” Maurice shakes my hand and returns to work. “Got to go. I can’t afford to lose this job. My family is depending on me.”
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