When you serve hundreds of customers a day, they all start to blend together, but I’ll never forget the guy who gave the name “Frankenstein” when he placed his coffee order. I made him a medium-sized Americano, but didn’t call out his name.
He picked it up and looked at the cup. “Say my name,” he said, his tone somewhat menacing, like he was doing a watered-down Walter White in that infamous scene from Breaking Bad.
"I don't get paid enough to say whimsical names," I countered, continuing to make the next drink. When I handed him his vanilla frappe—nameless of course—his eyes flickered slightly, but this time he didn’t press the issue.
I’m 33 years old, and I’ve worked for minimum wage on-and-off for the last decade, in various parts of the country. I graduated university with an English degree in 2008 with only vague visions of what my future might hold.
I wanted to be a retail entrepreneur and my first job out of university was working for a chain furniture store in a Montreal suburb to gain practical experience. It’s a company that I would return to in multiple cities over several years, selling imported decor and gift items to the well-heeled for an hourly wage, without commission or bonuses.
I was able to survive by making embarrassingly minimal headway paying down my student loan (while interest continues to balloon), getting occasional help from family, and avoiding a lot of extravagances, as well as some necessities. While living in Montreal this was viable due to low rents, but don’t ask me about the city’s dining hotspots or attractions like the Osheaga festival, where a $325 weekend pass is most of a month’s rent. I wasn’t living my proverbial “best life.”
We’re in an era of convenience. Coffee shops and grocery stores are at every intersection. People want their food delivered, their cabs cheap, their tables waited, and their checkouts full-service. But there’s little thought for the cheap labourers making that happen. In cities like Toronto or Vancouver where rents are especially burdensome, it’s seldom asked how low-wage workers who keep the city humming are expected to keep pace.
But it’s also a time where increased minimum wages and the “fight for $15” are hot topics. It’s not hard to find the opinions of company executives, small business owners, or economists instead of the approximately 1.5 million Canadians working for a minimum wage.
That’s why we hear sound bites about how paying workers higher wages is going to negatively affect a company’s bottom line or, god forbid, pass along a price increase to the customer. You’d almost swear that the low-wage worker was a heartless hostage-taker.
Because most of my adult life has been spent working these jobs and bearing witness to how the nature of hourly work has changed, I know this not to be true.
Over the years, I noticed a pattern. Companies increasingly want even the lowest-ranked staff to use the sort of foresight and decision-making required of people in higher paid roles. They’re expected to be devoted to the brand and to be “flexible”—that’s code for willing to abandon any semblance of a consistent schedule to suit the company’s whims. As demands and pressure have intensified over the years, they’ve consistently outpaced the pay.
Many of my tasks as a shift supervisor at a large coffee chain were directly tied to revenue or cost-saving activities, but I didn't personally benefit when I earned or saved money for the cafe. One time, a district manager organized a sales competition with a prize for the winning location. A cash bonus? No, the “prize” was that she would come in and do a few hours of cleaning for us. I remember being told she’d even get on her knees to do some of the floors.
If you’ve ever wanted to see someone run around like a headless chicken, you should see the management of a chain cafe when a higher-up is in town. I’ve never understood the panic. If a cafe isn’t reasonably presentable to a superior, on any given day, you’re either doing something wrong or their standards are impossible. Having seen district managers frantically realign tables so all the woodgrain faced the same way, I’d venture the latter.
When executives were in town no effort or expense was spared to dazzle them. Once a coworker and I were asked to deep clean the store after our night shift ended. We finally left at 3:15 am, about four hours later than normal. People were even hired to pressure wash the sidewalk overnight, lest it offend the executives’ sensibilities. Someone was even dragged in from another location, last-minute, to rewrite our chalk labels for cookies and chips because she had nice penmanship. For those few moments the executive might have spent in our cafe though, we, the baristas, didn’t even end up getting a visit.
But when our business doubled in the summer, at times with lineups of tourists over twenty-deep, there didn’t seem to be money for extra staff. Some nights this would totally derail us, and I’d get home an hour or two late. Our system for calculating labour didn’t consider things like better customer service or taking pressure off employees or allowing them timely breaks. So despite thousands of dollars of additional revenue, we couldn’t spend $12 an hour to bring in reinforcements.
Ideally, we were supposed to get to know customers and “build connections.” This was an often insincere and burdensome task because we were supposed to go beyond normal employee-customer interaction. Even if people gave us cues that they didn’t want to chat, we were supposed to ignore them and engage. Making lattes for people is one thing—asking their pet’s names or deepest fears another. But the goal of the connections was just to get them to return and spend more money.
When I worked at a cafe in Alberta’s Bible Belt, a married set of regulars who were well known for their testy moods and leaving behind messes complained they didn’t feel they were treated right. One of the trespasses? Not indulging the wife enough with free beverages. The manager and district manager sided with employees so she called the company’s headquarters. We were told to do whatever we could to appease her and keep the couple’s business.
One recent Australian PSA campaign says that 87 per cent of fast-food workers have been subjected to verbal abuse or aggressive behaviour. I've been sworn at, yelled at, and even had one disgruntled customer mock my physical appearance in an online review. It could be worse. I’m thankful that unlike a certain instance at a Tim Hortons in B.C., nobody tried throwing their own fecal matter at me.
I always considered minimum wage jobs as transitory, like the difficult prelude to something better. I remember thinking I’d left that world behind when I went into business for myself, but less than a year-and-a-half later, I was back where I started.
Because I was always working towards some other goal, I was detached enough from the job at hand not to feel stigma or embarrassment about not doing something more advanced. But over time, I didn’t even notice that the detachment was a myth. I had the same stresses, money woes, and frustrations of everyone else in this kind of work. I’ve kept a lot of these feelings and observations to myself, up until now, simply because I needed the paycheque.
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