I spent four years working in food service, from the ages of sixteen to twenty.
Working at McDonald's in high school I experienced structure, discipline, and teamwork, and was rewarded with regular opportunities for pay raises and increasing responsibility in the two years I worked there. I didn't always like my managers, but they kept all of us well informed of policies, procedures, promotional campaigns, and our schedules.
My experience at VIP's in college, was opposite in the extreme. I was often called into work when I hadn't been scheduled. When I protested about not being paid for the extra hour I worked when the clocks were turned back, the manager shrugged, and said I'd make up for it when we turned them forward six months later.
During graveyard shifts, the restaurant was left without a manager on duty from midnight to 5 a.m., which left me alone up front, at age nineteen and twenty, every Friday and Saturday to deal with a restaurant full of drunks when the bars closed. Each time a customer took advantage of me during those hours, saying that he was going to get his wallet from the car and driving away, or adding a bug to his meal and demanding it free, the morning manager would look at my tickets from the night, yell at me for not following policies I didn't know existed, and dock my paycheck.
The same managers daily would comment on my likeness to Sandy Duncan, invite me into the walk-in refrigerator, or to their apartment after work—sexual harassment before I knew the term. Is it any wonder the chain folded years ago?
During my food service years I lived in a single parent household with an income below poverty level, and received Federal and State financial aid to attend a public university. I would not have been able to attend college without those grants, and I hope this access to higher education for deserving disadvantaged students is not dismantled by the current Federal administration.
Thankfully I found a job on campus and I quit the horrible waitress job midway through my studies.
But there are many people for whom food service jobs are a main source of support for a family. I worked with a few of them back then. Standing on your feet all day. Being treated badly by hangry customers. Taking orders from your bosses. All for minimum wage—plus tips if you're "lucky" enough to wait tables. It's not easy.
Today, my husband and I are small business owners with three full-time employees. In the construction industry, where employees are often hired for a day or week and paid under the table, we make sure our employees work every day. We pay a living wage, contribute to our employees' health care costs, and offer holiday, overtime, and vacation pay.
We do this because it is the right thing to do. We do this at the expense of our own financial comfort. It's a decision we believe will pay off in the long run, because integrity should be at least as important as profit, because character (or mission or vision in a larger setting) should figure prominently in any business plan.
I write this because many of us are mired in fear and worry about the ethics and character of those being chosen to lead our national government. We are marching and signing petitions and making calls to legislators, and wondering if, or how, to make an impact. I have felt that powerlessness and frustration almost daily. And yet, there are reasons to hope, and I believe we need to share the stories of hopefulness as widely and vigorously, as we do our call to arms.
We all have personal power. We all make choices each day where we can see the positive impact of our actions. Those choices might seem small in the face of the enormity of the challenges that face us on all levels of life, but that doesn't diminish their importance.
I'm fortunate to live in the state of Washington, a state where citizens voted to increase the minimum wage substantially in the last election. That vote, a small choice for each individual, made dramatic results. I know that the large wage increase that took place in January is causing some businesses to struggle because this increase wasn't in their budget, and I am hopeful that they will find ways to absorb those costs.
As for me, I'm not a food service employee anymore, subject to the whims of management.
I am a small business owner, an employer, and no matter what sort of erosion or destruction of workers' rights is on the horizon at the Federal level (which I will do my part to oppose), there is no legislation that can prevent my husband and I as business owners from paying a living wage and offering benefits to our employees.
No stripping of laws or regulations can prevent any of us from doing the right thing in any arena. So, let's all find "our right thing" and do it.
I am a writer who, in December 2011, fortified by a new MFA, empty nest, and changes in my husband's employment, relocated from my native California to Washington state to see what would unfold next.