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Essay: Fast Food Salaries

McDonald's CBO (Cheddar, Bacon, Onion) burger with fries, ketchup, and a drink.

The wealth gap in the U.S. is large and it's only getting larger. In May, Forbes reported that in 2018, the richest 10% held 70% of total household wealth, up from 60% in 1989. And in June, the Brookings Institute reported that the top 1% alone holds more wealth than the entire middle class. 

Lake Effect essayist Tom Matthews thinks that needs to change.  

The New York Times recently published its annual list of CEO salaries at America’s top companies. We learned that McDonald’s CEO Stephen J. Easterbrook racked up a cool $16 million in cash and goodies last year. That’s a lot of Happy Meals.

Struggling to afford any meals, meanwhile, was the typical McDonald’s wage slave, whose median full-time pay last year was barely twenty grand – a pay ratio of roughly 1000 to 1. This at a time when the national poverty level for a family of four is $25,750.

I have no idea what the CEO of McDonald’s does. There are probably 15 levels of executives beneath him, each no doubt making well into six figures, and I don’t know what they do, either.

But I do know what these executives are not doing. They are not spending 100% of their work day doing the thing that is McDonald’s: making food, selling food, cleaning up what’s left of the food. Directly engaging paying customers as the face of the corporation to separate them from their cash and pass it up the pipeline to support Stephen J. Easterbrook’s summer home. Built, almost certainly, where McDonald’s are not allowed, and its lesser employees are never welcomed.

“Well, come on,” the corporate rationalization must go. “The burgers almost cook and wrap themselves. Computerized registers calculate the change for the dwindling number of customers who aren’t swiping credit cards. And last time we looked, operating a bucket and mop is still the same ideal drudgery for the simple-minded.

“What, you’re supposed to get rich doing that?”

"Slapping on that McDonald's name tag and soaking up the splattering grease, spilled ice cream and restroom overflows for eight hours a day is absolutely not glamorous nor complicated. But it is the thing - the thing - that brought McDonald's $26 billion in revenue last year."

Rich? No. But how about paying your full-time employees no less than fifty grand a year which, as established, is merely twice the national poverty rate. Bask in the corporate benevolence that comes from simply allowing your employees to earn a living and raise a family. That whole American Dream thing.

Slapping on that McDonald’s name tag and soaking up the splattering grease, spilled ice cream and restroom overflows for eight hours a day is absolutely not glamorous nor complicated. But it is the thing – the thing – that brought McDonald’s $26 billion in revenue last year.

Similarly, stocking shelves, retrieving carts from the parking lot and directing customers to the underwear aisle was the thing that let Walmart top the revenues list last year with $514 billion. And moving product along a conveyer belt, loading trucks and delivering packages was the thing that made Amazon’s Jeff Bezos the richest man in the world.

How hard it is to do the thing shouldn’t even enter into it when the thing is clearly being done very well, based on revenues. So pay the thing-doers a wage that is in meaningful proportion to their role in the company’s success!

No, the guy scooping my fries at McDonald’s doesn’t get to make six figures. But only in the most diseased version of capitalism could it be acceptable that the employee at the customer end of the revenue chain should work for less than a living wage – for no other apparent reason than the work they provide is almost literally worthless to those who benefit most richly from it.