Donning a sleek, black visor and white apron with floor-length strings, I walked through the back door of Wendy’s in July 2013, feeling anticipation and apprehension. Anticipation — because I’d finally be earning my very own paycheck. Apprehension — because I knew that getting paid minimum wage would only get me so far.
But, really, I didn’t need to worry. At 18, I was looking forward to my senior year in high school. I lived a comfortable middle-class life in the suburbs. I already was looking ahead to what my first paycheck would buy: a pair of faded bluejeans and a few CDs.
I will graduate in June and attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall, where I will study journalism. Aside from the dire warnings about the “dying” profession I hope to enter — and the challenge of staying true to my purple-and-gold roots among Packers fans — I see my future as bright and exciting.
That summer in the fast-food industry taught me to never take that feeling for granted.
Over three months, I met lots of other high school students with aspirations and dreams. But those aren’t the relationships I’ll remember. Many of my fellow employees were my parents’ age. They shared the same responsibilities of families and mortgages. Some had worked in the kitchen of Wendy’s for more than a decade but, because of language barriers, made only slightly more money per hour than I did. Becoming a manager was only a dream for them.
I was struck, and surprised, on several occasions by their depth and wit. They earned my respect not just because of their age, but because of their insights. One day, for example, I was enjoying a break in the backroom with a carton of chicken nuggets. Steve walked in, visibly exhausted. He told me that he had just ended a six-hour shift at Cub Foods. He was about to start his six-hour Wendy’s shift.
In frustration, he recounted his day so far, specifically how a grocery store customer had run over his hand with her cart while he was reshelving cans. She didn’t stop to apologize. Despite his exhaustion, Steve helped me at the cash register that day when I rang up an order incorrectly.
Then there was Aladio, infamous for tying pickles to his co-workers’ apron strings. One day, Aladio sauntered over to me and yanked a laminated hamburger cheat sheet from my hands. Still green and struggling to learn how to make different sandwiches, I was scared. Was this experienced hamburger technician trying to embarrass me? He started quizzing me. I quickly blundered the order of the ingredients on a double stack and forgot that a junior bacon cheeseburger gets three, not two, pieces of bacon. By my third sandwich, I got it right.
“See,” he said with a smile. “You know it.”
Sometimes, workers like Steve and Aladio were shown the respect they deserved. I remember a few customers who would greet them by name, with a smile.
Mostly, though, I felt sad for them. Recently, I watched a commentator on cable news holding forth with disgust over the push to raise the minimum wage. He called those who earn the current minimum “lazy.” Citing his vast experience working as a fast-food manager at 16, he defended a low minimum wage.
I still feel sad that this aggression and prejudice are directed at such a hardworking, grateful group of individuals. At Steve and Aladio. That commentator has lost touch with a world beyond his own perspective.
Most Americans have earned minimum wage in a job that has tested their discipline and mental stamina. Many of us have had the privilege of seeing these jobs as a steppingstone to a better situation that will offer security and comfort. Rather than spend our paychecks on toilet paper and fruit, we buy iPhones and rent Redbox movies.
But there are many others who stay in the fast-food industry and other low-wage jobs and grapple with the decision to buy jeans or dinner. Every day. If they are lucky, they will earn the respect of their co-workers, and maybe a kind customer.
Maybe that customer will be you.
Natalie Ghaffari is a senior at Eastview High School in Apple Valley.