Fast food striker: ‘I work, that means I should be making a living, right?’

You see them working the drive-thru, refilling restroom soap dispensers and waiting at the bus stop in their cheery uniforms.

They take your order, make your change, work the fry cooker, hand you extra ketchup and hot sauce, hold the pickles or the lettuce, and put the “happy” in your kids’ Happy Meals.

They are America’s fast food workers — burger flippers, sandwich artists, pizza tossers, soft-serve swirlers, pretzel twisters, table bussers and floor moppers. Despite the massive amount of food they handle every day, many are going hungry earning minimum wage or slightly higher.

Many can’t afford rent or medical care or schoolbooks for their kids. And all too many aren’t getting by. They’re the working poor. And they are begging for help.

That’s why hundreds of workers in Colorado – and thousands throughout the nation – are walking off the job today at places like McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, joining a nationwide strike for union rights and an hourly wage of at least $15.

“Minimum wage doesn’t work. No matter how hard we work, it doesn’t work. Nobody who works in this country should ever have to go through something like this,” says Deb Sandoval, 33, who makes $8.35 an hour at a McDonald’s in Aurora.

Sandoval is a high school graduate who has been working at various McDonald’s franchises off and on since she was 19. She has applied and been turned down for secretarial jobs so she can get out of the industry that leaves her with the stench of grease she can no longer smell in her hair and on her skin.

“I’m stuck in this work,” she says. “Fast food is what I know.”

Sandoval works the front counter and drive-thru window where, over time, she has learned many of her customers’ first and last names.

“I can smile and look happy on the job when I’m supposed to. And people smile back. That’s good service. But what people don’t understand is that some days it’s hard to smile because, bottom line, I’m not making it. I’m not getting by.”

Sandoval and her fiancé – who works with her at McDonald’s – got paid on Tuesday. For two weeks’ work, they made $743. Of that, $700 went to pay for the room in a two-bedroom apartment they rent with three friends. With the remaining $43, they bought two days’ worth of food and, she says, “enough toilet paper to last us a week.”

Right now, Sandoval has 51 cents in her bank account. The couple has been trying to save for a wedding and to some day have kids. But, there’s not enough to put away. Not even close. This month, she says, their cell phone bills will go unpaid. So will the storage unit where they keep the things they can’t fit into their room. Their families or friends chip in when they can. They buy them movie tickets a few times a year or treat them to a meal out once in a while. But taking handouts is tough for Sandoval.

“I work. That should mean I should be making a living, right?” she said Wednesday. “That’s why I’m striking tomorrow.”

fast food strike1

The “newsroom” on the McDonald’s corporate website announces the company’s expansion into Kazakhstan in 2015, but nothing about its pay practices in the United States.

When asked by The Independent, the company gave this statement today: “At McDonald’s we respect everyone’s right to peacefully protest. The topic of minimum wage goes well beyond McDonald’s — it affects our country’s entire workforce. McDonald’s and our independent franchisees support paying our valued employees fair wages aligned with a competitive marketplace. We believe that any minimum wage increase should be implemented over time so that the impact on owners of small and medium-sized businesses – like the ones who own and operate the majority of our restaurants – is manageable.”

Terri Hickey, manager of the company’s McDonald’s U.S. media relations, added in an email that “We believe that any increase needs to be considered in a broad context, one that considers, for example, the impact of the Affordable Care Act and its definition of ‘full time’ employment, as well as the treatment, from a tax perspective, of investments made by businesses owners.

“It’s important to know approximately 90 percent of our U.S. restaurants are independently owned and operated by franchisees who set wages according to job level and local and federal laws. McDonald’s does not determine wages set by our more than 3,000 U.S. franchisees.”

Sandoval and three other McDonald’s employees interviewed for this story all said they usually eat just one meal a day – one provided for free during their shifts. Some say they’re required to eat the meal at work. In other words, saving it – or even part of it – for their families isn’t allowed. All of them say they couldn’t afford to eat at the fast-food joint where they work. All of them also say they go hungry regularly, if not daily.

Three of the four – without vacation time or expendable income – say they’ve not been out of Denver or Aurora (where they live) for years, if ever.

“That’s just not something we ever think about,” said Yolanda Tellez, a 42-year-old kitchen worker who, along with her five kids, can see the mountains from afar but have never climbed, hiked or driven by one up-close. “We’re not thinking about the mountains. What we think about is where our next meal is coming from.”

fastfood 2

Tellez makes $9 an hour at the McDonald’s in southwest Denver where she has worked for eight years. She has earned raises every six months since she started at $7.05, but at 5- to 10-cent intervals. Through a translator, she said he wants people to understand that her salary isn’t enough to pay rent, feed her children or pay for gas. She prays “that people have it in their hearts to understand why we need $15 an hour for everybody.”

Tellez is striking today along with her friend and co-worker Elizabeth Guevera, a 45-year-old single mom who lives with her 11-year-old son Steven in a room of house for which she pays $350 a month. In that room, the owners keep food and water for their 14 cats and 2 dogs whose hair and dander are exacerbating Steven’s asthma to the point where they need to move. Also speaking through a translator, Tellez cries when she talks about the $675 in monthly rent for an apartment she won’t be able to afford. And about the laptop and Internet service she can’t buy for her son to do his schoolwork. And about the shoes he needs and the “Finding Nemo” DVD he wanted so badly at age 4, but she denied because DVDs are luxuries far beyond their budget.

After rent, and after medical bills for her son’s asthma and her own injuries from having been hit by a car, and after the enrollment for Steven’s soccer and basketball teams, there’s nothing left at the end of the month to buy food. So they go to a friend for a taco, when possible. Or they go hungry.

“You get used to the pain in your stomach. You get used to it real quickly. You eat only when you absolutely have to,” says Andrew Olson, a worker at an Aurora McDonald’s. Most days, he lives on his one free meal — a Quarter Pounder Deluxe #6 with a side of fries that he eats in the middle of his shift.

Olson makes $8.50 an hour – up from $6.25 when he started five years ago. His title — “crew member with maintenance training” — means he spends much of his time repairing and cleaning the cooking machinery. That includes the fry vats in which, he says, “I essentially stick my hands inside and scrub the oil clean for the next day.”

Like Sandoval, Olson has put off marrying his fiancé until they can afford a ring and wedding. “Nothing expensive,” he says, “just one that I could be proud of in my later years in life.”

“A lot of my dreams and aspirations have to sit on the back burner because of the situation I’m in. And I’m sure there’s plenty more like me.”

Home health care workers have joined fast food workers in today’s protests at two Denver McDonald’s. Elsewhere nationally, wheelchair attendants, aircraft cleaners, skycaps and airport baggage handlers also have joined the call for a $15 hourly wage. The movement is growing. Last week, workers at Walmart walked off the job on Black Friday calling for full-time shifts and higher pay.

For Olson and all the other workers who have skipped work for the one-day strike, there’s a fear – and, they say, a real risk – of losing their jobs.

“It’s kind of scary. I’m walking off the job for a day to make, I guess, a difference,” he says. “It’s scary for sure. But at the same time I know if I don’t do things like this nothing will ever change.”

[Top Photo: Elizabeth Guevera and Yolanda Tellez. Video of protest in Denver via ProgressNow; street protest shots by Bryan MacCormack.]