September 6, 2011


Who's lovin' it? The life of McDonald's workers (Bill Donahue, Published: September 1, 2011, Washington Post Magazine)

Two I Street is an American success story. Built in the early 1980s, the restaurant was bought in 2003 by Cuban-born Carlos Mateos, who spent $375,000 on a renovation that expanded the drive-through and updated the interior. Annual sales, which totaled $2.4 million eight years ago, have doubled. I Street is now one of the busiest McDonald's in greater Washington. I spent five days at the restaurant in June, intent on meeting workers such as Raul Reyes who, in pursuing their own American dreams, had attached themselves to the McDonald's juggernaut. Eighty percent of Reyes's workers are from Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador. (Immigrants -- both documented and undocumented -- account for about 25 percent of all workers in the food services industry, and that number is rising.)

What is it like to grow up in, say, rural Guatemala, in a tranquil, small town, with only a few houses nearby, and then emigrate north, to work under fluorescent lights, sating the demands of rambunctious children craving Happy Meals? How does a newcomer reckon with pouring dozens of large Cokes every hour as french fries sizzle in grease and six or eight of his co-workers scramble about filling orders, shouting, "Big Mac, Big Mac, Big Mac, Quarter Pounder With Cheese?"

McDonald's is, after Wal-Mart, the nation's second-largest private employer, with 700,000 workers. And as the economy flags, and as more Americans seek cheaper food, that number is rising. On April 19, McDonald's held a National Hiring Day and says that it brought in 62,000 new employees.

"We've got flexible schedules, benefits and jobs that can turn into satisfying careers," McDonald's' Web site said. Yet many people above the poverty line would never even consider working at McDonald's. The stigma of working at McDonald's is so culturally ingrained that since 2001 the Oxford English Dictionary has defined the neologism "McJob" as "an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. created by the expansion of the service sector." [...]

Reyes's job at McDonald's is a dream come true. He told me that after he sneaked across the Mexican border in 1995 to join his brother in Washington, he stood outside a 7-Eleven in Silver Spring each morning, hoping to land gigs moving furniture or digging ditches. "I'd get there at 5," he said, "and every time a car pulled up, I'd jump right in. But people always said: 'No, you're too young to work. You should be in school.' By 10 or 11, I'd have nothing. I'd go home broke."

He got a janitorial job, eventually, and cleaned office buildings from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. each weeknight. When at last he landed a $5.25-an-hour job at McDonald's, he was "jumping up and down like crazy. I called my mother," he said. "In my country, McDonald's is a big restaurant -- you need a college degree to work there."

After his first day at McDonald's, Reyes says, "my feet hurt, my back, my whole body." That was probably because he was still janitoring. For six years he worked both jobs, earning enough to turn his 1996 Honda Accord into a sleek street racer replete with hydraulics, three television sets and neon-green running lights. He painted the vehicle three times; at one point, it was lemon green with a purple hood. He learned English from a security guard who followed him from room to room as he cleaned, pointing, saying, "Table. Chair. Desk."

In time, Reyes was tapped to be a janitorial supervisor, but by then, he had impressed his McDonald's boss, Carlos Mateos. "He was ambitious," says Mateos, who owns 11 Washington area stores. "He was one of those people who was never content with where he was at. If he was in the grill, he wanted to know how to work the fryer. If he was in the fryer, he wanted to know what was going on up front." Reyes climbed quickly through the McDonald's hierarchy -- he became a crew trainer, then a swing manager, then a second assistant manager -- and in 2000, Mateos made him manager at his 1235 New York Ave. NW store. "He was hands-on," Mateos says. "If he sent his guys to the roof to clean the AC unit, he'd grab the degreaser and help."

In 2001, Mateos gave Reyes an ultimatum. "It's time for you to choose between your two jobs," he said. Reyes chose McDonald's. As a cleaning supervisor, he'd need to write reports in English. The prospect scared him; he had only a ninth-grade education.

When he took over I Street and its staff in 2004, he worked three months without a day off. He shored up the inventory practices; no one was keeping records on, for instance, how many hamburgers were dropped on the floor. He fired 40 of the restaurant's 72 workers. "People didn't like me, but they were giving away free food," he said. "They were taking money from the cash register like they were ATM machines." He began tapping the Latino grapevine for employees. The neighborhood gentrified. Nearby low-income housing was demolished. Nationals Park opened in 2008, and Reyes rose meteorically.

In 2009, he received a Ray Kroc Award, given to the top 1 percent of the managers at the 14,000 McDonald's nationwide. McDonald's flew him to Chicago. The three-day trip was, he says, "something I'll never forget. They picked me up in a limousine. They took me to the number one hotel in Chicago, the Sheraton, and the room I was in -- it had everything, even a TV in the bathroom. I felt like a rich man." Reyes's wife was invited. "She couldn't get the time off," he says. She works at another McDonald's.

Reyes, who has three small children, makes $39,000 a year managing a restaurant that grosses $5.2 million a year. Categorized technically as a legalized alien, he gets medical benefits from McDonald's.

Posted by at September 6, 2011 3:43 PM

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