Essential Workers Were Heroes. Then We Asked for More.

I work in fast food — cleaning, grilling, smiling — and I know why you don’t want me to earn $15 an hour

Past midnight, or at 2 a.m. on the weekends, our fast-food place closes its doors and we use the next hour to clean up and put everything back in its place. Recently, we got an additional task, sorting through the trash to meet new recycling requirements: plastic in the yellow trash can, food in the red one. “We grill burgers, not the Earth” was the gist of the initiative, an effort to address the fast-food industry’s impact on the planet.

We’ve been working overtime ever since. The stacking of task on top of task takes its toll. No amount of optimization can make you complete 15 time-consuming and back-breaking tasks as quickly as when there were eight of them. Regardless of the fact that we do, in fact, grill the planet, it’s good PR for the restaurant. So we keep doing it.

Our bosses don’t amend our contracts when the workload gets heavier. No raise. No bonus. Just like the product we use to clean the walls and mirrors and toilet seats, we’re multipurpose, you see? Legally speaking, nothing is outside our wheelhouse. We make burgers and entire meals in a hot room. We deal with disgruntled customers who won’t wear their masks. We wipe away protesters’ graffiti off the glass window. We clean up dog shit tucked away in between the seats. We comfort our friend crying alone in the cold room. We look up shelters for the Spaniard who failed his two-month trial period because he didn’t learn our language fast enough, and can’t fulfill the “multipurpose” part of his contract.

Jack of all trades, master of all. And the scope of “all” gets wider at every turn. No raise, though. Tools don’t need more money.

Whenever buzzwords like “unskilled labor” and “minimum wage” reenter public discourse, people come out of the woodwork to defend million-dollar companies, and we’re left to bite the dust. That’s what happened when President Joe Biden called to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. People love making us bear the brunt of their ideologies.

Like a meaningless recycling initiative, fast-food workers can be a company’s PR tools. In 2020 we were called “essential workers,” “frontline workers,” and “heroes.” We were the last firewall protecting the economy from total collapse. They clapped for us too, but now we’re just “flipping burgers.” If you’re just flipping burgers, you don’t deserve to live comfortably. Our existence is a warning. We’re the boogeymen upper-middle-class White moms tell their kids about. (“If you don’t work hard enough at school, you’re going to end up like them.”) Our dehumanization is limitless.

Our bosses don’t amend our contracts when the workload gets heavier. No raise. No bonus.

It doesn’t matter that many fast-food workers are also students struggling to pay for college, an education that will supposedly get them out of poverty. (Meanwhile, PhD students at top universities still qualify for food stamps.) It doesn’t matter that the food industry is one of the most diverse in the country; it pays its minorities less than their White counterparts. It doesn’t matter that some people actually love working in this industry; it’s a shame the industry doesn’t love them back. For many of us, “love” is best described as a lack of hostility. We are only worthy if we serve our customers perfectly.

This became almost impossible to do. Months into the pandemic, hordes of anti-maskers and conspiracy theorists flooded the streets, demanding haircuts and fast food and all sorts of services back. Their desire to be served was so raw, and their performance of privilege so stifled. They felt oppressed without their service workers. They begged for us to fight and go back to work. We were heroes; they were the Bat-Signal. But our heroism vanishes the moment we show up to work. The essential part of our work was only real to customers when their servants disappeared.

Two years ago, my co-workers and I went on a weekly strike to protest our deteriorating working conditions. We’d caught wind that there would be no new hires in the summer despite a recent wave of layoffs that slashed our already understaffed team. Realizing this decision was made to cut on spending, some of my co-workers organized a sit-in that gave our bosses no choice but to close the restaurant for a few hours every week.

When we’d sit in the closed restaurant and talk about the sit-in itself, or literally anything else, we’d hear banging on the glass window. We’d look up at would-be customers and make a cross with our arms, mouthing that we’re closed. They’d flip us off every now and then. Then the negative Google reviews started trickling in. “I wish I could give them 0 stars! They’re always closed!” said one. “Their opening hours change too often. Very unreliable!” said another. Just a few hours a week of non-service, and we already were the talk of the town.

Six weeks after the first sit-in two new hires showed up, and then there were two more the next week and two more the week after. After striking every week for a little over a month, we’d gotten what we wanted, a team whose individual members didn’t have to do the work of four people at once. For once, we weren’t the puppets — we were pulling the strings. Damn, the power we had.

I’m at a point in my life where I’m brave enough to get fired but not brave enough to quit. Now, whenever our managers congratulate us after a tough, understaffed rush hour that brings in double the money expected, I clear my throat and blurt out to my co-workers, “Chill out, we’re still paid the same!” I often get told off for that one, but this job radicalized me enough to cut through the bullshit. The minimum wage we earn per hour in no way reflects the work we put in, which goes against a major tenet of capitalism we’ve been force-fed for centuries: The harder you work, the richer you get. Of course, that’s not what happens.

Capitalism is a pyramid scheme. We squabble over the mere proposal of earning $15 an hour while doing the bidding of people at the top. We don’t question why it’s necessary for billionaires to be who they are, but all hell breaks loose when fast-food workers start asking for a little more. The worshippers who protect their multimillionaire overlords don’t realize that statistically, they’ll never be like them. But they pray at the altar every day.

They begged for us to fight and go back to work. We were heroes; they were the Bat-Signal. But our heroism vanishes the moment we show up to work.

When they can’t argue anymore and tell us to just get another job, they don’t know that we already have another one. I work in a library. He works in a lab. She’s a translator. They’re doing an unpaid internship. He’s a lifeguard. She’s an Instagram influencer. I’m a freelance writer. They’re doing another internship. She’s also the treasurer of a nonprofit. They work in another restaurant of the same fast-food chain.

We stretch ourselves thin because the current minimum wage hasn’t significantly increased in decades, whereas rent and the general cost of living has tripled in the last few years. In the end, these conversations are exhausting because when it comes down to it, we’re just arguing for our humanity.

What I’d give to be a hero again. What I’d give to snatch away our customers’ performance of privilege. What I’d give to see their desire to be served consume them one more time. If we’re going to be PR tools, we might as well seize the opportunity and advocate for ourselves. If the entire industry banded together and organized around this goal, maybe we could change their minds. Damn, the power we’d have.

English graduate student and freelance writer based in France. Words at Level, Elemental, Gen, Human Parts, etc. Email: abderemane.m.assad@gmail.com

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