The One Thing Most McDonald's Workers Will Never Tell You

Photo: Courtesy of Lynn Cromer/Mcdonald's.
This story was originally published on Medium. Kate Norquay is a New Zealander who is now living in South America.

From age 18 to 22, I worked at McDonald's. I worked a mix of part- and full-time over those years, always failing to find a "better" job. I never advanced up the rungs, never was a manager, and never achieved anything of significance in my time there. Basically, I was the absolute stereotype of a deadbeat McDonald’s worker: lazy, stupid, with no initiative.

Over the years, I saw this stereotype play out in a number of ways: the faces of my parents' friends falling when I told them what I did, the snide remarks ("Do you still work at McDonald's?" or "I could never work at a place like that"), and the "encouragement" from my friends ("Just don’t show up to work today!").

And it played out in my own mind. I was a terrible worker — too slow, clumsy, and resentful of my circumstances. I quietly decided that I was too good for McDonald's. I constantly justified myself, saying "It’s such a shit job! But I need money. Haha." I was a bookish good student who enjoyed intellectual conversation. I wasn’t meant for this useless physical labor.

I didn’t improve. And what’s more, I didn’t want to improve. Why should I try to be good at something that was beneath me?

But, after a few years, my attitude started to change. I started to be proud of my job.

Why should I try to be good at something that was beneath me?

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I asked myself, What is the difference between McDonald's and the entry-level jobs other students have? Why is my job so much more pitiful than others?

Is it because I work for a big corporation? No, because otherwise jobs at the Warehouse or Hannahs would be just as embarrassing.

Or because the company is unethical? Glassons and JayJays use slave labor.

Maybe because I work in fast food? But a job at Burger Fuel isn’t quite as bad.

Because it’s not intellectual? No, jobs in retail and reception are okay.

And then I realized: McDonald's is supposed to be a job for people who can’t do anything else.

McDonald's is supposed to be a job for people who can’t do anything else.

I noticed that the majority of entry-level jobs didn’t hire people who looked like the people I worked with. At McDonald's, there were people with disabilities, overweight people, people who weren’t conventionally attractive, people who couldn’t speak much English, young teenagers, and a lot of racial diversity. These people made up the backbone of the store. They were respected as some of our best workers.

I would look at a store like Glassons, Whitcoulls, or Starbucks, and the majority of the time, I would see people who looked like me. White, early 20s, reasonably attractive, slim, English speakers. This was the bias that I, along with the people around me, was applying to my job. I met the criteria for a "better" job; people who come from "good" backgrounds aren’t "supposed" to end up in McDonald's alongside those who can't do better.

If you’re a white girl in your early 20s, you will be ridiculed for working at McDonald's. But I don’t think the same applies for disabled people, or middle-aged Pasifika women, or immigrants. Their friends aren’t quietly snickering, "When are you going to get a real job?" Because this is the job we expect them to have.

If you’re a white girl in your early 20s, you will be ridiculed for working at McDonald's.

McDonald's is gross and greasy. But my humiliation — and that of my friends and my family — wasn’t rooted in the fact that I made burgers. It was because I was "supposed" to be better than that. Supposed to be more intelligent, more hard-working, and more talented than the people I worked with. I thought I deserved a "good" job; I had an inflated sense of self that comes with being a person of privilege.

I realised this attitude was way more gross than shoveling fries. Because I am not better than any other McDonald's worker.
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I had an inflated sense of self that comes with being a person of privilege.

I am not as hard-working as my co-workers, who sometimes pull 20-hour shifts to make sure no customer has to miss out on a midnight hamburger. I am not as smart as our manager-turned-engineer, who learned how to fix all the machines, so we didn’t have to call a mechanic. I am not as organized as those who predict and order the ingredients for thousands of customers a week — customers who wait in the wings, ready to scream, throw drinks, and use racial slurs over a lack of ketchup.

These things are skills. There are different types of labor, and just because we treat the work done by marginalized people as worthless doesn’t mean that's true. And if you think you are better than those people because you work in retail or organize files, you are wrong.

For me, my time at McDonald's was invaluable. Yeah, I never want to scoop fries or make burgers again, but I learned something more important: I started to chip away at my arrogance. I challenged the ways I dehumanized people because of their jobs. I stopped equating my dislike of big, shitty companies with dislike of their foot soldiers. I developed more empathy.

And if that is supposed to be an embarrassing blip on my résumé, I really don’t get it.