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June/July 2002
Minimum Wage Warrior

By Meg Murphy


It’s a Sunday night at a McDonald’s on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst, and Dorian Davis is watching his crew: Get the customers in and out, wrap those burgers and fries, load Big Macs onto that conveyer belt for the drive-through. Faster!

Davis is a sweet-faced young man of 17, but he knows what it takes to get ahead. McDonald’s didn’t promote him from his start pay of $5.15 an hour to his current $5.70 for nothing.

“It’s not as easy as it looks working at McDonald’s,” said Davis, a recent graduate of Queens Vocational High School. Weekend evenings can bring in a solid rush of customers from noon until nine at night, requiring a staff of over a dozen crew members just to keep pace.

Tonight the cheery purple and blue tables are filled with families, teenagers and a few couples, each of whom have ordered at least three food items apiece. Davis glances around the restaurant, apprehensively eyeing a coughing toddler who is taking a reckless swig from his Grimace styrofoam cup. The child starts coughing, and Davis watches until the mother has set things straight with a few slaps on the back. The demands on a McDonald’s manager are constant.

“This is a good job when you’re still at home with Mommy,” Davis said with a self-deprecating laugh. He works five or six days a week and refers to his earnings as “good for pocket change.”

But it is a job that Davis approaches with pride. He straightens his McDonald’s tie, one of three such corporate gifts, and smoothes out the creases in his navy blue and white-striped McDonald’s shirt. “People think it’s a free ride here, but it’s not. They think it’s McDonald’s and not a real job. Their first busy day cracks them, and then they see what it means to work at McDonald’s.”

Despite the low pay, Davis says workers appreciate what he calls “a family atmosphere” at McDonald’s. He says it can help the crew deal with the stress of indecisive customers and long hours, and, oddly enough, has even helped them joke off their fear of death on the job. In June 1999, the restaurant was one of five fast food places in Queens robbed by a former fast food employee named John Taylor. No one was harmed, but employees were alarmed one year later, when the same man, along with friend Craig Godineaux, allegedly killed five employees at a Wendy’s on Main Street in Flushing. The robbers forced seven employees into the basement freezer, forced plastic bags over their heads, and shot them execution-style. It was the worst mass shooting in New York City since 1995.

“It really weirded us out around here. People were talking about it. I think everyone felt like, “Hey, that could have been us,’” said Davis. He was relieved when employees began trading jokes to take the edge off, and he says that now all seems well. “It’s good. They can focus on the job.”

An increase to the minimum wage, says Davis, would go a long way in acknowledging the hard work that people in the fast food industry do every day. At his restaurant, teenagers make up the majority of the staff of about 40 workers. Davis doesn’t know how workers who don’t live at home manage to pay their rent, although he says the older workers have earned promotions to salaries over minimum wage. “People here work hard. It takes focus and discipline. It takes something to make it at McDonald’s.”

Meg Murphy, formerly a freelance writer in New York City, is now working for the
Cape Cod Times in Hyannis, MA. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the Gotham Gazette (6/26/00). You can read the original and more articles at Reprinted with permission.


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