Soon after my sixteenth birthday, I took a job at a McDonald’s restaurant near my house. All that summer, I grilled quarter pounders and wrapped Big Macs at the Golden Arches.
And… I saw things, man. Bad things.
Below, I clear the air. Here are some behind-the-scenes insights from my time at Mickey D’s.
- Your burger sits out for hours before it’s served. Once the beef is cooked, grill workers stack the patties in a plastic tray, then slide the tray into a warming machine. That’s the “fast” in “fast food”—McDonald’s can deliver your burger instantly because it’s been pre-cooked. Each warmer tray slot has its own timer; when the alarm sounds, the beef must be discarded so that it doesn’t spoil. But here’s a nasty secret: the grill staff ignores the timers. When the warmer beeps, workers often reset the timer and return to whatever they were doing. When a tray runs low, its contents are recombined into another tray and the process starts all over again. In short, no one’s keeping track of how long each patty sits there. Often, the grill sends out dry, congealed burgers, hoping that no one notices.
- The staff desperately wants to work more. Throughout that long summer, my manager scheduled me for just a few dozen shifts. Often, I’d work just one or two days per week. Back then, my local franchise probably hired extra workers to cover for flaky employees. These days, underscheduling workers probably helps McDonald’s avoid federal insurance mandates, since part-time workers are exempt. In any case, between these infrequent shifts and my minimum wage, I made very little money that summer.
- McDonald’s can be dangerous. One afternoon, I was assigned to clean the back of house, rather than cook. I wandered around the grill area, wiping down random greasy surfaces. At one point, without thinking, I leaned on the grill itself, then immediately yanked my hand away in pain. The 350-degree surface had instantly seared my palm. Somehow, I managed to finish my shift without revealing the injury (thankfully, a first-aid kit near the drive-thru booth included burn cream). I gritted my teeth and endured the throbbing ache until I clocked out. Why not tell my manager? First, I was embarrassed. Second, I would’ve be sent home—and I was already short on hours (see #2 above).
- Individual workers may suffer from the division of labor. I worked at McDonald’s for an entire summer, but I spent nearly every shift manning the grill and the re-warming trays. Rarely did I handle the actual bun assembly. Only once did I get assigned to cleaning detail (and that ended badly; see above). The drive-thru was assigned to more experienced workers. The cash register and delivery truck were foreign territory. And I never worked the breakfast shift, which required separate training than the burger-and-fries detail.
- Not every worker prizes hygiene. Like any restaurant chain, McDonald’s has high cleanliness standards. Employees are instructed to wash their hands when there’s any chance of contamination. But during the lunch rush, when two dozen customers have queued out front, and the drive-thru traffic loops around the building, cleanliness falls to the wayside. An employee who scratches his nose or touches his hair should drop everything and re-wash his hands. That rarely, if ever, happens.
These aren’t exactly horror stories; nothing here is scandalous enough to make the local news. No, during my McDonald’s summer, I witnessed more of a low-grade grossness. Not enough to hurt anyone—but enough to make me feel queasy every time I stoop to eating fast food.