How I Get By: A Week in the Life of a McDonald’s Cashier
December 8, 2019 6:34 PM   Subscribe

Cierra Brown is trying to do all she can on her own, but it rarely feels like she’s doing enough. This is the first in what Vice says will be “A regular series in which people lay out what it’s actually like to work at some of the country’s most powerful companies.”
posted by Etrigan (29 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
The idea that one shouldn’t or won’t take SNAP food assistance (or is unable to qualify, due to time or “household” income) even in these situations where it would provide some much needed breathing room hurts my heart so much. We learn the type of self reliance that ends up as us setting ourselves on fire to keep the richest in society warm.
posted by zinful at 6:59 PM on December 8, 2019 [69 favorites]


$215 for 2 weeks of work. That's so sad - we should be ashamed as a country that we let hard-working people make this pittance and call it a job.
posted by hydra77 at 7:32 PM on December 8, 2019 [39 favorites]


We learn the type of self reliance that ends up as us setting ourselves on fire to keep the richest in society warm.

Yeah. Well put. Trying and failing to come up with something profound. That article was rough. Makes me wish we more people who were interested in governing in office right now. This next year is gonna be a long one.
posted by badbobbycase at 7:39 PM on December 8, 2019 [9 favorites]


I frequently wonder about folks who need just a few hundred dollars, to buy a car or afford some other thing, that would allow for a big leap in quality of life.
posted by mulligan at 9:09 PM on December 8, 2019 [2 favorites]


Similar, but very different: Savvy Millennials Are 'House Hacking' Their Way To Homeownership And Rent-Free Living (Money.com).

Spoiler: "house hacking" = renting out room(s) to cover your mortgage, and possibly make money on top of that. Which works for people who can afford to buy a house, but may not be able to pay the mortgage, or have enough space to rent out room(s).

The American Dream is now a sham, propped up by memories of times past, and stories of the plucky "disrupters" who are making it work (where "it" means "affording to own a home and pay for surprise medical bills").
posted by filthy light thief at 9:43 PM on December 8, 2019 [13 favorites]


I had her other job -- hospital food service -- until my late 20s. The images of trayline came back strong (I now learn those heated metal things under the plates are 'pellets', not 'pallets'). I got married, had a baby and went back to college on that job, and was dead broke most of the time, but managed to make it work.

How?

It was a union shop.
posted by Ickster at 9:47 PM on December 8, 2019 [24 favorites]


What stands out to me the most in this article is that Ms Brown is having to do everything in such an atomized way because she's living in a world with virtually no infrastructure. Shit transportation, shit access to health care, shit labor laws that can't protect her pregnant coworker from constantly having to physically contort herself to perform her duties or protect Ms Brown from having to accept whatever hours McDonald's throws at her or risk getting her shifts cut, and on and on. Insanity. Obviously she (everyone) needs a union and higher wages but what also needs to happen is stuff like better public transportation, health care, maternal leave and childcare, food aid, labor protections (as legal rights, not up for negotiation whether that negotiation is aided by a union or not) -- jeez there are so MANY ways that the people in this specific, short article are being denied very basic public goods, are we not a society here?

It is such absolute bullshit that this woman cannot get Medicaid -- it isn't just bullshit for her, it's bullshit from a public health perspective. And how fucked up is it that it's a small crisis when a worker doesn't pack a meal for her shift at a RESTAURANT, especially a huge, booming chain like McDonald's, and even worse, that the reason Ms Brown doesn't want to eat the food she serves there isn't even primarily financial, it's that she can't take the hit to her health. And it should be a positive thing that she's taking public transportation, since that's actually better for Durham/Earth as well as her pocketbook, but of course it's nearly impossible for her to do that over the long term because public transportation is so shoddy, it's forcing her to buy a car that she can't afford and that will make her carbon footprint bigger anyhow. It's like she's being coerced by the lack of public goods/infrastructure into doing things that are not only terrible for her but also terrible for everyone in the aggregate. I mean, even if you're trying to make her life miserable (which, why?!) she STILL should have good health care because that's what's good for the public (health), she should still have good public transportation access because that's what's good for the public (environment).

I mean, the starvation wages are a sin and the amount of time that Ms Brown has to waste getting those starvation wages is also a sin (the loss of human potential -- what could she be doing if she weren't wasting hours on a bus or stressing out scrambling for work-arounds to cope with whatever petty shit the store throws at her?). But something else striking to me is that even if she had more money and better wages...there's still basically no society around her? I mean, no public investment in ANYTHING. Which is stupid and wasteful and just inefficient, aside from being obnoxious.

I genuinely do wonder if The Powers that Be want us to waste all our time and energy coping with stupid shit like finding individual transportation and managing cooking and childcare and stuff all as atomized individuals, as well as working endless hours at shit jobs for a pittance, because that keeps us too occupied to do anything actually worthwhile.
posted by rue72 at 10:03 PM on December 8, 2019 [109 favorites]


Is there a standard mechanism known for preventing companies from filling their rolls with part time labor while still giving employees the option of working part time?

In my fantasy world, part time labor would be for people who didn't want to work full time and for companies that didn't need a full time employee.

But I don't know how I would legislate that.

I assume universal healthcare would go a long way toward removing the companies' incentive to keep people part time, but I don't know if that's all of it.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 10:11 PM on December 8, 2019 [4 favorites]


(my question is prompted by the now common practice of people splitting 40 or more hours across multiple jobs, as the author here does.)
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 10:13 PM on December 8, 2019


I was in an accident this summer so my car was being repaired for about a month. I ended up busing places. Its fucking exhausting. I was going back and forth to campus trying to get the last things together so I could start my first semester going back to school.

I knew how many people in low paying jobs mcdonalds often had to take multiple hour bus rides to get to and from their jobs. But let me say right now, living it for a month, that was surprising to actually experience it. It's not just the time on the bus either. Sometimes the bus is late, and sometimes early. I just remember the first time it hit me that part of the reason I was so tired was that I had just added a couple hours to my commute.

And something about it is just exhausting. Not just the jostling. Being "on" in a way you don't have to be in your own vehicle. The extra planning if you want to make stops like the grocery store. How quickly can you walk across some place to catch a different bus because you missed this bus?

And downpours suck even if you've got an umbrella. Milwaukee has been getting rid of bus shelters, I assume because of "fuck you, poor people" reasons. About one week after I started taking the bus, they removed the shelter at my stop. The next day it rained so much. I was just soaked from the water bouncing off the pavement onto me. And the bus was late that day. No where to go, just me in the rain, wet and tired.

I also discovered a lot of places seem to have no easy bus access, like Walmart and Target. So getting goods from those places required hoofing it for a few blocks, at least.

I am glad for the experience to know first hand just how exhausting and impacting taking the bus is. I just didn't fathom until I was relying on it over an extended period of time. One trip wouldn't have been the same thing.

It's almost like the system is designed to keep the lowest paid too tired to fight back.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 11:11 PM on December 8, 2019 [64 favorites]


That’s one of the goals of benefits-by-the-hour (not the official name?), the idea that every hour of work earns 1/40 of a decent benefits package. Removes the employer incentive to keep people below full time. Is a midway step to universal benefits.

Me, I would also apply that charge to every hour above 40 for any employee below a ( high) wage or equity percentage. There are 60 hour jobs now that could be a full time and a part time, but the short term money incentive AIUI is strongly against that.
posted by clew at 11:12 PM on December 8, 2019 [8 favorites]


Buses don't have to be so bad, either. I live in a UK city and commute entirely by bus and it's great. It's great because
- lots of buses that travel often. I need to do a two part trip to my current job, but there are three buses that will do the first section and two that do the second. I never have to wait more than ten minutes for a bus.
- covered shelters with actual seats, an electronic board that says which buses are how many minutes away in real time, and an app that does the same.
- dedicated bus lanes, so sometimes it's actually quicker on the bus than by car, because the cars are stuck in traffic.
- I can do stuff on the bus! Reply to emails, read, plan, listen to podcasts... I can relax in a way I can never do whilst driving.

Basically if a city cares, owning a car easily becomes more of a hassle than the bus (finding parking, maintenance, traffic). It's a massive failure, from my perspective, not to have a working public transport system. That's such a basic part of running a city.
posted by stillnocturnal at 1:52 AM on December 9, 2019 [35 favorites]


Basically if a city cares, owning a car easily becomes more of a hassle than the bus (finding parking, maintenance, traffic).

"A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation." – Gustavo Petro, former Mayor of Bogotá, currently member of the Senate of Colombia
posted by Etrigan at 6:47 AM on December 9, 2019 [71 favorites]


Milwaukee has been getting rid of bus shelters, I assume because of "fuck you, poor people" reasons.

My memory of an article was something like The stops are being vandalized so why not just outright remove them so then the expense of repair is off the books. Collective punishment as it were.

Good on Vice for doing this and may they sell lots of advertising on this series. My guess is they'll make a killing selling election ads.
posted by rough ashlar at 7:08 AM on December 9, 2019 [4 favorites]


stillnocturnal: Basically if a city cares, owning a car easily becomes more of a hassle than the bus (finding parking, maintenance, traffic).

This is a really interesting idea, and it captures a few different elements of transportation planning.

First, looping back to nostalgia for the "vintage" American Dream. Families could live in a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence because they owned a car, and car ownership was sold as freedom, itself a brilliant marketing ploy. That freedom is limited to generally limited to well-maintained roads, so there's twice the cost burden on suburban living: owning and maintaining that car, and having the tax base for governments to own and maintain public roadways.

Which is not to say that there aren't buses in the suburbs, but low-density residential development doesn't go hand-in-hand with quick and efficient public transit. Put another way, I don't think anyone moves to the suburbs to get rid of their car.

Second, the density of development compared to road capacities in cities is where public transit, when designed and operated well, will thrive. There's no way a dense, and growing, city can provide enough roadway capacity to make cars the most efficient mode of travel, unless they want to spend billions on multi-layered roads, drill tunnels, and get creative with expanding where cars can drive. Even then, you still have the issue of parking, and making parking spaces in an area of prime real estate is rarely the most lucrative use of said space.

Cities can mandate a certain number of parking spaces, or they can invest more in public access and decrease the need for parking. Or just offload the transit topic to "ridesharing" companies, which is an affordable option for some, but definitely not all. But decision-makers are generally not bus-takers, and neither are traffic engineers who design city transportation systems.

So the problems of public transit are problems for poor people, and I don't think it's because the powers that be want to keep them down, but people who make decisions don't consider what it's like to rely on city buses. They still imagine, hope, or assume people will eventually get enough money to buy a car, and then they don't need to rely on buses. Unless they live in big enough cities where there's no way to build out of congestion, but that's only major metropolitan areas, and even there, so many people just put up with congestion because hey, that's the price of working in a big city, right?
posted by filthy light thief at 7:35 AM on December 9, 2019 [5 favorites]


I'm taking public transportation in DFW. I am paid a living wage and have the fortune to sleep in a safe bed every night. I'm also a 5'4 tiny blonde woman who gets regularly harassed on public transportation and am TERRIFIED during the .6 mile walk to the train station. I do all of this because the commute would involve a deadly highway. It's more expensive for me to take the train if you only factor in daily costs, but the car maintenance/tires/gas might balance out. I'm crying at my desk right now over this story. I wanna go punch a capitalist monster.
posted by lextex at 7:46 AM on December 9, 2019 [14 favorites]


"Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" is a very good read about "getting by". It really brought home how much of a bubble I live in. (Amazon Link)
posted by fluffycreature at 8:07 AM on December 9, 2019 [10 favorites]


I take what Google maps says is a 45-minute bus/walk home most days. Google maps says to get off the bus and then it's a 6-minute walk home. It is actually a 15-20 minute walk home, because I have to get off the bus either way before or way after my actual street to have a protected crosswalk, and then I have to wait for the walk signal for 2 crossings on a busy intersection. It's ridiculous. I could get off at my real stop and jaywalk, but it'd be very dangerous. And a 20 minute walk doesn't hurt me personally, but for anyone with mobility issues that could be a 30+ minute walk.

I hope they do a lot more of this series, it reminds me of the Money Diaries refinery29 does. Those have always bugged me because whenever I seem to find someone in my relative income/cost of living bracket there is always some big expense they don't have, like zero debt at all, or still on parent's health insurance.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:39 AM on December 9, 2019 [12 favorites]


Not that this is a new or interesting observation, but it is tremendously depressing that a business can impoverish its employees and still be considered a successful business. It's immoral and it should be illegal.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:52 AM on December 9, 2019 [21 favorites]


The United States is simply the cruelest developed country in the world. It's a shithole masquerading as a glamorous and satisfying place to live. Almost everything the average person encounters in a day is broken: our transportation system, our medical system, our working lives, our food supply, our housing.

I don't believe it's the worst country in the world to live in--not even close--but no other country, even ones under strongman dictatorships, gaslights its citizens as thoroughly as the United States.
posted by Automocar at 9:40 AM on December 9, 2019 [44 favorites]


"Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" is a very good read about "getting by". It really brought home how much of a bubble I live in. (Amazon Link)

Published in 2001, so nearly 20 years ago.
posted by Gelatin at 9:45 AM on December 9, 2019 [4 favorites]


I don't believe it's the worst country in the world to live in--not even close--but no other country, even ones under strongman dictatorships, gaslights its citizens as thoroughly as the United States.

That's life in the imperial center for you. The common folk are allowed access to paltry scraps of the spoils of empire, enough to maintain bare survival. But the price is extreme social controls and monumental, unassailable structural hierarchy.
posted by Rust Moranis at 10:17 AM on December 9, 2019 [4 favorites]


Milwaukee has been getting rid of bus shelters, I assume because of "fuck you, poor people" reasons.

My memory of an article was something like The stops are being vandalized so why not just outright remove them so then the expense of repair is off the books. Collective punishment as it were.


Perhaps this is the publicly stated rational, but really it's to prevent homeless people from having shelter to sleep under. More punishment for the poor.
posted by erattacorrige at 11:43 AM on December 9, 2019 [7 favorites]


I genuinely do wonder if The Powers that Be want us to waste all our time and energy coping with stupid shit like finding individual transportation and managing cooking and childcare and stuff all as atomized individuals, as well as working endless hours at shit jobs for a pittance, because that keeps us too occupied to do anything actually worthwhile.

If "actually worthwhile" means "organize and stand up for ourselves" then I don't think there's cause to wonder -- it's blindingly obvious.
posted by treepour at 12:01 PM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]


That's the most amazing part of this story - that this woman is working two jobs, endlessly riding the bus, is diabetic managing her health herself, and has a leading role with a group that is organizing for a union.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:50 PM on December 9, 2019 [8 favorites]


Perhaps this is the publicly stated rational, but really it's to prevent homeless people from having shelter to sleep under.

Naw, the homeless is why they removed the sides YEARS ago and, to be fair to the County Scott Walker was in charge of for a while they are letting a tent camp exist under the interstate downtown. Which is an improvement over the regular trashing of the people and mattresses that slept there 5-7 years ago.

I don't know if the tents are the county - but the City should not be trusted. Like clockwork the department of neighbothood services would issue gutter cleaning orders to a gal just because she was working for the tax collector for the State and poorer homes were (ok - ARE) regular targets of DNS. At one point all that info was gathered along with some reps chatting about how to up the tax base by getting nothing by upscale properties during the "lets put in rail cars to go around to all the upscale property" while whistling past the cream city brick foundations that are dust. So if DNS can condem all the old homes, by default,, new magical high tax real estate will spring into existance seems to be the thinking.
posted by rough ashlar at 1:46 PM on December 9, 2019 [5 favorites]


Hey, is there an organization that I can send money to and they will pass it on to people who can use it for their needs, to avoid some of the "it's expensive to be poor" trap, and also have that much more time to fight as they choose to?

GiveDirectly does good work globally and I'm not planning to stop giving through them, but supporting U.S. workers' rights is strategic in addition to being a moral necessity. Cierra Brown is doing work I can't do.
posted by away for regrooving at 11:22 PM on December 9, 2019 [1 favorite]


You might want to look at Modest Needs, which makes grants to working people to meet unexpected expenses (car repair, rent when you've fallen behind because you spent two weeks in the hospital, etc.). It's not 100% perfect--there's a little more "deserving poor" rhetoric than I care for (not to a crazy level, and not sectarian)--but you can't read the stories and not realize that the work they do is necessary until we fix the safety net.
posted by praemunire at 12:28 PM on December 10, 2019 [1 favorite]


"Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" is a very good read about "getting by".

I just finished reading this New Republic article about On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane by Emily Guendelsberger (publisher; Indiebound).
posted by joannemerriam at 1:02 PM on December 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


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