Friday, August 15, 2014

Minimum wage smackdown

Cashier to customer:  Take that burger money and—

Have you ever noticed that the more our nation moves toward a service-based economy, the less service we seem to be able to get?  Who amongst us has not had our run-ins with the occasional surly, snippy grocery cashier, department store salesperson, or fast food worker?  Is it just me, or is it getting worse? 

Maybe it is me.  Perhaps I’m getting cranky with age.  It happens.  In any case, let me say right off the bat that what recently transpired between me and a presumably minimum-wage cashier at a neighborhood burger joint was in no way typical of the kind of service I usually get there.  For that reason, I’m not naming the chain.  Its cashiers are pleasant on at least some occasions.  More typically they’re neutral, but in a perfectly professional kind of way.  I could live, I could die—it wouldn’t adversely affect their day either way, but at least they’re not actively sticking pins into a bald-headed doll.

That said, I will point out that this is one of those chains where the forces of random chance and chaos are allowed to determine who’s next in line to be served.  You’re never sure whether one cash register is open, or two.  There is no queuing system other than, “May I help who’s next?”  If it’s clear there’s more than one line, you will pick the slowest one; it’s a fundamental physical law of the Universe, like the forces responsible for gravity, electromagnetism, and lost socks.  Often times patrons stand off to one side while they stare up at the menu pulling their chins in open-mouthed confused indecision (“I don’t know.  Burger?  Chicken?  Burger?  Chicken?  Fries?  No?  Gee.”)  You can’t always know at a glance whether these deep thinkers believe they’re in line or not—and if so, which line.  Customers are expected to sort this stuff out on their own.  “Are you in line?” is an oft-heard question.  If you fail to ask and then guess wrong, you invite a withering glance at very least, and are likely to get told off and put in your place (literally) in curt, pointed tones.

When I walked in, as I have done hundreds of times with this chain, and dozens of times with this particular store, I saw only one customer at the counter ahead of me, a woman with a stroller.  She had the cashier digging into a bin behind the counter, sorting through various kids’ meal toys.  What was going on, I have no idea.  Whatever.  I waited.  I  continued to wait as the cashier chatted with her about the customer’s tattoos, which were both plentiful and colorful.  “Oh, that one’s nice,” the cashier said, pointing to some kind of elaborately scroll-worked and filigreed figure on the woman’s bare upper arm.  “What does it mean?”  It means she was drunk or stoned one night ten years ago on spring break, that’s what it means, I wanted to shout.  But I didn’t.  I self-stifled.

While this was going on, a man about my age approached from behind and took up station just to my right.  He was looking up at the menu while standing even with me, very close, in what seemed like a “You think you’re next in line but really I am” kind of way.  The cashier and tattoo victim continued to chat.  I said nothing, but the look on my face probably betrayed my annoyance, because when the cashier caught my glance, she shot me a “What is your problem?” kind of look.  Eventually the illustrated lady paid for her order, but continued to stand there while she secured her toys, put away her change, tucked her purse into a stroller pocket, and so on.  While this was going on, the man on my right walked around behind me and then bellied up to the counter on my left.  Since I was still stuck behind Toys-Am-I mom, this placed him in position ahead of me.  Finally, stroller lady moved out of the way, and I stepped forward.  At this point, I was standing even with the guy, and was directly in front of the register, facing the cashier, while he was out of position off to the left.

The cashier turned to him and said, “May I help you?”

Without thinking, I blurted out, “I believe I’m next.”

The cashier flashed me an annoyed “sure you are” look.  “I don’t think so,” she said flatly.

Again, without thinking, I said, “Actually, I’m quite sure I’m next.”  I glanced over at the interloper to see if he’d realized his mistake.  I saw that the man had thrown his hands up as if I’d drawn a pistol on him, and was backing away.

There is something about a line jumper that just makes you want to wade into it.  I once watched a woman walk brazenly past about two hundred people queued up for a ride at Disney World, and she got away with it cold.  I’ve never forgotten that.  But suddenly I realized how ludicrous the current situation was.  It was all so small.  “Look, I don’t care,” I said to both of them, now feeling embarrassed.  I stepped back, and then motioned him into my place.  “Please.  Go ahead.”

“No, you go ahead,” he said, backing away further, while still reaching for the sky.

Now neither one of us was at the counter, and no one was ordering.  Meanwhile, as we were going through our get-out-of-my-way-no-you-get-out-of-mine-okay-you-go-no-I-insist-you-go routine, a line had formed behind us. 

Fine.  “Okay,” I said.  I stepped forward again and placed my order.  The cashier rang it up.  She then read me back a total that was substantially higher than it should have been.  “No, I don’t think so,” I said.  “That can’t be right.”

At this point, there was no mistaking it. The openly hostile expression on her face definitely qualified as what my lovely wife likes to call, “The Stinkeye.”  “It’s what you ordered,” she said, still glaring at me, and now she was really putting her back into it, squinting her eyes, pursing her lips, and flaring her nose.  Her look of disdain, disapproval, and utter contempt was so intense, in fact, that if I’d held up a mirror, it would have set her hair ablaze and started a fire in the kitchen behind her.

“Would you mind reading it back to me?” I asked.

She did so.

“No, that’s not what I said.”  I then repeated my three-item order.

 “Sir,” she said frostily, “you don’t have to be rude to me.  That is not what I heard.”  By her expression, it was very clear that what she really meant was,  “That’s not what you said, a**hole.”

I was stunned.  Now, it is true that I had to undergo full anesthesia for a surgical procedure three months ago.  And I’ll further concede that some of my friends have questioned whether I’ve yet to come all the way out of it.  But really, they’re just kidding, I’m pretty sure, and besides, I feel fine.  I tend to order the same items at this chain every time, and have years of practice under my belt in getting the routine down pat.  Further, having to repeat an order was nothing new.  It’s practically de rigueur for ordering in a fast food restaurant, and I’d done it a thousand times before with a thousand other cashiers, using the exact same words and tone of voice.  Rude to you?” I asked, astonished.  I thought,  You’re kidding, right?  Are we really gonna do this?

Apparently we were.  She continued to irradiate me with a fusion-powered, soul-shriveling, “You, sir, are an ass” particle-beam glare.

I opened my mouth to defend myself.  Then I stopped, closed it, and thought about asking for the manager.  As both scenarios played out in my head, it occurred to me again how stupid this had to look.  And now my appetite was gone.  “You know what, fine.”  I said.  “Forget it.”  I put away my wallet, turned, and walked away.

“Have a nice day, sir!” she sang out loudly with enough acid in her voice to dissolve a life-sized bronze statue of St. Francis.  Heads turned—not to look at her, but at me.  By their expressions, I could tell that my fellow fast-food addicts were wondering what kind of abuse I’d dished out to so annoy the poor harassed cashier.

I almost turned back at that point.  But I didn’t.  There are good, righteous, and worthwhile battles to fight over the issue of poor customer service.  I wasn’t convinced this one was one of them.

Mind you, historically I have not been one to shy away from a customer service fight.  In fact, as a TV news director, I adopted pro-consumer coverage philosophies and have personally led teams of journalists into battle on those kinds of things.  But in most of the cases that spring to mind, the stakes were a bit higher than a $4 hamburger order.

One day several years ago, I bought a set of china from a major retailer with which I’d done business many times previously and had come to trust.  A few days later, when I washed the dishes for the first time—by hand, as instructed—the gold trim began to rub off.  I retrieved the receipt, and only at this point did I notice words that read, “No returns without original packaging.”  I’d thrown the dish box away days ago after verifying that the set had arrived intact.  Undeterred, the next day I stacked the dishes into a leftover U-haul box and took them back to the store.  The returns clerk politely pointed out the words on the receipt and said she couldn’t help me.  I asked to see the manager.  He was not so polite.  The man didn’t quite ask me out loud whether I could read, but did point out glacially that ignorance of store law was no defense, and stated flatly that the rules would not be waived for the likes of me.  “Fine,” I said, and pushed the plates across the counter to him.  “Keep ‘em.”  As I walked out, I was proud that I had restrained myself from making a helpful suggestion about where he could keep them.  My credit card company refunded my money without question.  And two months later that store went bankrupt.  Imagine that.

I once took my car to an automotive repair chain that I’d patronized for years, trying to get an idle problem fixed.  Three trips and $800 later, it was still idling rough.  Exasperated, I popped the hood, looking to see if the throttle linkage had an idle backstop screw.  I found it, adjusted it, and thereby solved the problem myself.  Outraged, I dashed off a nastygram to the company’s regional headquarters.  One week later a refund check for the full amount of the repairs arrived in the mail, along with a professionally worded apology.  It won that company a life-long customer, and I’ve had nothing but good experiences with its stores and mechanics since.  I would venture to guess that other customers have received similar treatment and are showing similar loyalty because of it.  That company did not go bankrupt; it’s thriving today.  Imagine that. 

Cases and companies involving big-ticket items are one thing.  Should fast food joints, churning out cheap food at the hands of low-paid wage slaves, be held to any different standards of service?

Really, I’m not the person to ask.  I’m probably a dinosaur when it comes to that kind of thing.  It’s been many years since I worked for minimum wage, but I have done it.  I didn’t flip burgers, but I did fill tacos, scrubbed bugs off of vehicles, manned a convenience store counter, and chased golf balls at a driving range while patrons did their level best to kill me (“Look at that one!  There it goes!  It’s gonna get him!  It’s gonna get him!  Dang, it missed.”)  Eventually a college degree led to higher-paying jobs.  But my attitude in each and every one of those gigs, regardless of pay, was the same:  in return for my employer’s paycheck, I would turn in my best efforts.  Period.  I’ve had bosses I liked.  I’ve had bosses I wouldn’t cross the street to help on my personal time if their pants were ablaze and I was holding the only fire extinguisher on Planet Earth.  But in every case, I did my level best for the company.

I also have quite a bit of experience handling seriously disgruntled people.  Try talking to a NASCAR fan whose televised race has just been interrupted by an urgent news report, and see what happens.  Even when faced with a barrage of personal abuse including f-bombs and worse, the nastiest words I ever recall uttering to a customer were, “Sir, I’m not required to listen to profanity or abuse, and I’m disconnecting the call.”

They say that today’s generation has a different work ethic.  I was a hiring manager in my last several jobs, and I got lucky, I guess, because I saw no pattern of problems with the young people I brought on board, many of whom were just starting their careers and therefore were making entry-level wages, or close to it.  Some of my colleagues in the industry report having had different experiences, claiming the “millennials” expect a prize for showing up, demand to be respected equally with the senior staff upon walking in off the street, believe career advancement should be simply a function of time served, and think those annoying evening, weekend, overtime, and holiday shifts are someone else’s problem.

Again, I don’t know.  What are reasonable service and performance expectations for young or low-paid employees in today’s business world?  When it comes to poorly paid workers of any kind, should we customers feel grateful they’re tolerating our physical presence and allowing us to fork over our cash?  Should we feel guilty?  Are we exploiting them?  Is surliness or even snarliness simply to be expected as a reasonable response to an unreasonable economic disparity?

Maybe you buy that.  I don’t.  I agree the minimum wage needs to come up.  But that is not what this incident was about.  It was about professionalism.  That’s a character trait, like honesty, not a job skill.  Either you have it or you don’t.  Good employers screen for it. 

Someone else receiving the treatment I did might have pitched a fit, hoping to get the employee canned.  But I decided not to be that guy.  I wasn’t out any money.  And even if I had felt the emotional need to retaliate for my minor public embarrassment, I doubt that losing a job at the local BrickBurger would have ruined this employee’s hour, much less her afternoon.  In any case, ultimately, it’s not my responsibility to help the owners of that business train their employees or to identify any potential threats that the bad ones may present to their bottom line.  It’s theirs.  Besides, I have a suspicion that even without my intervention, sooner or later this employee’s folder will wind up in a file marked, “self-solving problems.”  So I walked away.

And I won’t be back.  I can’t shake my fast food habit, and am not inclined to try.  But the landscape is filled with burger joints vying for my business.  That’s one of the beauties of our free market economy.  It has it flaws, God knows.  But it does provide options.  Consumers can make choices.  As I just did.

Anyway, it could have been worse.  Someone could have dribbled a swastika on my hamburger bun, as one fast-food butthead recently did to a customer in North Carolina.  If something like that had happened, I'd have no choice.  I'd have to go to the media, as she did, resulting in a paroxysm of outraged coast-to-coast coverage.

Wait, I am in the media, if you let me count this blog and a local talk radio station. 

Life is good.


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©2014 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.

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