fast food

The Veteran McDonald’s Worker Who Joined the Fight for $15

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Bettie Douglas, 59
McDonald’s Crew Member and Fight for $15 Activist
St. Louis, Missouri

I wasn’t always an activist.

My dad started getting sick, so I had to come home and help him. We couldn’t make ends meet, so I applied for any place I thought would call me. McDonald’s just happened to be the first. I’ve been there for ten years.

I work in all departments. Wherever I’m needed, that’s where I work. Maintenance. Making sure the fountain-drinks area is clean. If the lobby needs to be done, I start with the lobby. Then the manager will call me back and have me do prep, or she’ll put me on the grill. Later on, she’ll probably put me on greeting at the drive-through window. Sometimes, I’ve even done the drive-through window and the cashier, alternating back and forth, passing the food out, and making sure the articles are correct.

Every day I’m rotating through all those stations. At some point during the day, I’m doing everything. I mop the floors. I prepare the salad. I prepare the buffets. I pull the bread from the freezer; we date it and put it in trays on a rack. Sometimes, we have to put the oatmeal together, put it in a cup, and add the hot water, fruit. I fry nuggets, the chicken patties. When you’re at the frying station, you have to make sure you have all your supplies. You have to go all the way to the freezer and bring the fries up. I think there are eight bags of fries in a box. When you’re cooking them, once you drop the fries into the fryer and put the timer on them, you make sure you’re pulling the fries on time to keep them from burning. Whatever needs to be done, they call me to do.

If you came through the drive-through when I’m greeting, I’m going to bag your food, put your fries in, make sure your order is correct before I pass it out, and fix your soda and make sure that it’s the right size — and make sure that the top is on well, so that when I pass it to you, it doesn’t spill all over the place.

I do the table also! I make sure the table has everything it needs. You might have ketchup or jelly or picante sauce or wrappers. It’s a pretty busy store, so you see all kinds of messes. Customers make spills. Sometimes, they leave their trays. The kids in the high chairs leave crumbs. You know how kids are so messy — they have crumbs all over the floor, and all that has to be cleaned up by someone.

You’re constantly picking up something, wiping something, or mopping something off. Sometimes, you have to wipe down the inside of the windows. If it’s raining, we have to put the mats out and mop the entryways. Something constantly needs to be done. We have a play area for the kids, and it has to be cleaned out. So you will find me washing down the high chairs, wiping down the slides in the playroom, and mopping the floors. I have to empty six big trash cans, and I go to the restrooms and I have to empty those smaller trash cans. Whatever they ask me to do, I do — because I’ve got bills.

Some of the other workers switch up, but mostly they hire kids, and they only know one station. They’re still training. I don’t mind working so many stations because I’ve got to work. I’m not picky. I just would like to be paid fairly for all the different jobs that I do.

My pay doesn’t go up when I learn a new station. I guess it makes sense. They’re going to get as much work out of me as possible, without having to hire other people for those other positions. Why hire someone else when they are paying a person $7.90 an hour for all those positions? That’s more money in their pocket.

Anyone who’s ever worked with customers, you know it’s not a easy job. Especially when there’s a long line. Sometimes, customers throw sodas on you. Sometimes, they cuss you out. You have to accept this stuff without any retaliation: You can’t say anything back to them. I’ve had people throw money at me when I’m at the cashier. That can make me feel unsafe. You don’t know exactly what their intentions are.

We have regular customers. Some of them I get to know. We get a lot of elderly people who come in. They’re lonely. They need someone to show them a little love and to be kind to them. If I’m wiping the table off, I might ask them, “How’s your day?” Sometimes we get into a conversation. Just a nice word here and there goes really far.

I do like working with the customers. I feel good when I’m helping someone. Make sure that they have ketchup or whatever they need. Make sure that I’m getting their food correct. When they say, “Well, thank you so much; I appreciate what you’re doing,” that makes me feel good.

But I don’t look at it like this is fun. I look at it like, I got this bill and my power’s about to be cut off. My mind is focused on I got this bill, or I got this disconnection letter yesterday, and I’ve got such and such that got to get paid. I’ve got so much going on at home, I don’t really have time to be thinking about “fun” to be honest.

I have responsibilities. I have a 16-year-old with autism who I have to get out to school. And I have a son who was diagnosed with a brain tumor about a year ago in January. I’m trying to hold on to the house that we grew up in.

There’s a timer on the order board. It tells how long you’re taking to get the food out. If it says 175, that’s a no-no. Anything over 150 is almost unacceptable. The owner is very strict about that. If you hit your number, it’s not like, “Oh, you’re doing really good.” No, that’s what they expect of you.

Most of the time, you can’t get that food out in that time, because you’re working with machinery that doesn’t really work, which is just crazy to me. How do you expect me to do a good job when the equipment doesn’t even work right? You’re so greedy that you won’t even get the machines working? Last week, the refrigerators were broken, the ones that hold the meat for the grill. That meat had to go in the freezer, way in the back. That means you’re constantly running back and forth from the freezer to the grill so you can still make the sandwiches on time! You’re doing extra work; you’re working extra hard; and it’s crazy.

I’ve never counted them, but I’m thinking they have at least five or six cameras in the store. They let it be known that they see everything that we do. The managers said it. The owners said it also. There are times when the owner calls the store and says, “Such and such a thing is happening,” or “Why is this person doing that?”

My son sometimes calls me from school, and when that happens, it’s because something is going on. But if you’re on your phone, you’ll get suspended. If I’m being watched on the cameras, then I might lose my job. If I need to make arrangements for my bills while I’m at work, I can’t use my phone. I got a warning last week. If you have an emergency or you call in sick, you might very well be suspended for two days.

Working for this company is like modern-day slavery. You can’t do this; you can’t do that. I’m on my feet constantly. The break room — they call it a lunchroom, but it’s a little closet. The window is so close to the ceiling, you can’t look out of it. If there are other people on break, we’re like sardines.

I have applied to other places. But I really don’t have a lot of time. For one thing, why should I? I’ve been ten years with this company. Why can’t you just go on and pay me a decent wage? Why do I even have to look for a job? Looking for a job is like working a job.

My shift manager makes about $900 for the two-week period. She brought home $900. She’s been with them 15 years, too. They don’t want to pay anything, but they want to work you very hard. I don’t mind working. I have no problem with that. But you expect this work out of me, so I expect decent pay out of you.

I worry about being able to buy my son some shoes. Am I going to be able to buy me some shoes? We have to have a certain type of shoes to work in, and I can’t afford work shoes. When I’m not at work: Can I buy tissue? Can I buy soap? If you paid me a living wage, then I can get me a hooptie — a little vehicle that can get me to work, and get me to the grocery store, and get me to places that I need.

I think they’re very greedy. I think they’re very selfish. Inconsiderate. They work you for peanuts. And not only McDonald’s, but all these big corporations. Half of them don’t even pay taxes. And that’s ridiculous.

One day, going on almost four years ago, I was at the window, greeting. And the Fight for $15 people were at the store striking. They’re a group that’s organized to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. I just was really fed up that day. I was hollering out the window, telling them, “That’s right! Let’s strike!” A reporter noticed that I was putting my two cents in, and he asked me, “Can I interview you?” And that was in the newspaper. They showed me. At that time, I didn’t know that I had the right to strike, that I had the right to step out and fight for my rights like that. That’s the first time I had an encounter with Fight for $15.

We started striking all over. We went global. We’re not the only city where they’re not making a decent minimum wage. So we went to Washington, D.C., and we had a strike there, too. Since then, I’ve been kind of like a spokesperson. I’ve been in the newspapers and on TV, talking about what we’re doing. In fact, I was on the news last night. I didn’t know, but that’s what they said.

I’ve heard comments made that I’m a half-wit because I’m in Fight for $15. But I really feel good about it. Because if I can’t do anything else, I can voice my opinion. I can let people know that I’m aware that I’m being mistreated. And let people know that I don’t appreciate not being able to feed my family, or pay my bills, or go on without my electricity or my gas. And that I don’t appreciate what this billion-dollar company’s doing.

What do they say, “A closed mouth doesn’t get fed?” I’ve got a big mouth, as you can tell. I believe in speaking what I feel, especially on justice. And I know that anyone who works on any job for ten years, or works a full-time job, deserves to make a living wage.

I am blessed to have a job. I might not be able to pay all my bills on time, but I do have something. I feel very privileged. I know a lot of people who can’t find work.

It makes me feel bad. We’d love to go on vacations like everybody else. I would love to just go and pay my bills. I don’t want my sons to be worried about me. I want them to live their lives. My sons will be like, “Mom, I wish that you didn’t have to work so hard. I wish that you didn’t have to worry about this, that, and the other. I wish that things were better.” But they’re also proud of me. They tell me all the time, “I’m so proud of you.” They say, “I’m so proud of you, you little activist!”

Editor’s Note: On April 27, the Missouri Supreme Court decided not to reconsider an earlier ruling that would allow St. Louis to raise its minimum wage to $10 an hour. The new wage should go into effect next week, and will go up to $11 an hour in 2018.

The Veteran McDonald’s Worker Who Joined the Fight for $15