By Nita Johnson
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — The country roots are obvious as a plate of fresh homemade biscuits and gravy adorned with a minimum of three strips of fried bacon are placed on the table.
The clatter of the fork against the serene porcelain plate is the only sound as the hungry patrons devour the breakfast feast that also includes hash browns and eggs -- all fixed atop of grease-laden grill.
Streams of classic rock, country and some country-reggae blend echo in the building as the sizzle of steaks, hamburgers, bacon and other menu items hitting the grill provide brief interruptions in the usual routine of employees exchanging orders, delivering food, and talking with customers.
The heat from the grill and fryers never leave the employees cold until a door or drive-thru window lets in the outside air. Inside the building, it is a world within itself, obscured from any reality other than preparing food for customers.
The duty varies from cooking and cleaning, stocking supplies, and providing prompt, courteous service to the customers who enter the doors. The pay is low, and many of those employed in this business environment struggle to keep a car operational enough to transport them back and forth to this job that brings little respect from the general public. The tips are the butter for the bread for most of the workers, whose pay ranges to minimum wages of the 1970s.
Irate customers who insult and degrade their livelihood and/or lack of education for a “better” job create a greater sense of despair for these workers whose managers and owners also often contribute to the destructive spiral of poverty and diminishing self-esteem. It is nothing to ask these workers to serve food, then scrub the baseboards of the tiled facility in the same shift. It is nothing to ream them for exceeding their time limit in serving an order, then ask them to mop the floor and risk falling on the floor where they will be walking to serve that food. The hours of standing on a concrete floor take its toll on the circulation system, causing swelled feet and legs.
Most workers have no insurance coverage and scrap by on the handouts of government programs to assist with their heat costs, food for the family, and childcare while they work. Many are the sole source of income for their family and a paycheck for two weeks’ barely covers the bare essentials.
Recently restaurant workers staged a plea for higher wages, citing nearly $15 per hour as their starting wage. That idea was met with extreme controversy. For one, the restaurant owner - especially one in a franchise - could not meet such a wage for multiple workers. Secondly, the consumer ( who inevitably pays the price of higher wages) can’t afford to eat at facilities where the workers are paid higher wages than the patrons take home.
Another point is that in this particular area, many college graduates barely make $15 an hour themselves, even though minimum wage is now $7.25.
Any working person with a family, a home, and a vehicle is already stretched to meet their monthly financial obligations and regular pay raises still fail to keep up with the rising costs of living. With a loaf of bread now costing over $2, fast food and more high-end restaurants have also taken a hit with the costs of food. Having to more than double the employee wage would result in a huge increase to consumers, who would then eat less frequently and inevitably affect the future of the business.
Every person who exerts their time and effort in a productive manner should be rewarded. But those rewards should be distributed appropriately and fairly to the people they most affect -- the consumers. A restaurant worker may be approved for a $15 an hour job, but with those rates, the number of working hours may be decreased and leave the employee in the same pay range as before.
It is only fair to financially compensate employees. But it is also only fair to make that compensation realistic and comparable with the geographic region where the services are rendered. Larger cities with higher costs of living will naturally pay higher wages than a rural area where operational costs may not reach the same levels. Like everything else in life, there must be a “happy median” found and followed.
And that, my friends, is Breakfast in a Bag.