In high school, Kayla Fisher’s teachers would tell her she had a knack for making people happy and putting smiles on faces. She’d be great in customer service. So when it came time to find her first job, Fisher decided to put that personality to use.
“I applied to a couple jobs, but I really wanted to work at Subway,” says the 20-year-old. “Because I knew I’d be working with a lot of people, [and] I just figured it would be a really good first job for me.”
She began in January 2011 at the Subway in Hillyard, the one that, along with a payday loan store, is attached to a Safeway. She worked between 20 and 30 hours a week, making sandwiches, cleaning the lobby and baking cookies and bread.
But when a new manager came in, Fisher watched her hours dwindle.
“We’d had a couple conversations where she said I needed to work on my speed and stuff, but nothing too major,” Fisher says, referring to the manager.
And text messages sent by the manager proved disheartening. One read: “I just want to tell you all something and make sure u understand this is SERIOUS!!!! I am SICK and F---ING TIRED of hearing drama BULLSHIT gossip from employees about employees!!!” (The f-word was spelled out in the actual text message.)
Another message, which called for a staff meeting later that day, read: “I’m not very happy about some issues the store is having be here or you don’t have a job!!!”
Shortly after that message, Subway fired Fisher. She and the manager, Savannah Tuter, offer different accounts as to why. Fisher says she was fired for not responding quickly enough to texts or messages to cover shifts — though she insists she always answered those messages. Tuter says Fisher was fired in part for “causing drama and gossiping about other employees,” and wouldn’t speak to any other possible reasons.
Tuter acknowledged to The Inlander that she sent the messages. And that she regrets sending the one filled with expletives: “I’m not going to try and justify it, I know what I said was wrong to people.”
But in a world where fired CEOs receive million-dollar severance packages regardless of performance and where union cops get big settlements for not being fired in the correct way, the fast food industry exists on another plane.
Other than scribbling out applications for new jobs, fast food workers can’t do much about being fired, according to industry and labor experts. In the meantime, workers like Fisher remain part-time by definition, earn low wages, get no health benefits and can remain on call constantly to pick up last-minute shifts.
“They haven’t shown improvement over the last couple decades, they’ve gotten worse,” says John Borsos, a professor at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md., of fast food restaurants. “And they’ve become such a fundamental part of the economy.”
Fast and Loose
The restaurant industry is the largest private employer in Washington state and the second largest in the nation, according to the Washington Restaurant Association. In both Washington and Idaho, 10 percent of the state workforce is involved in the restaurant industry, according to the National Restaurant Association. Nationwide, fast food restaurants were projected to ring up nearly 40 percent of all restaurant sales in 2012. That amounts to about $174 million.
Like many others in the 21st century economy, fast food workers are considered “at-will” employees, according to Cheryl Beckett, professor of law at Gonzaga University. They can leave their jobs whenever they want, and their employers can fire them for any reason, says Beckett, who teaches employment law.
Union employees, on the other hand, often have guidelines established with employers for addressing how workers can be fired, and how they can challenge a termination they felt was unfair.
“The union would represent the employees,” Beckett says. “Without a union, there is not that step.”
Despite Washington having the highest minimum wage of any state in the union and a broad set of discrimination laws that prevent firing on the basis of gender, ethnicity, marital status and other reasons, Beckett says workers in low-paying jobs still struggle. Because they’re not considered full-time, workers like Fisher often can’t get health insurance or earn enough to be above the poverty line.
“It’s all part-time,” Beckett says of such jobs.
Borsos, who teaches labor and the economy, sums it up differently.
“The working conditions are bad, the hours are bad, the pay is rotten,” he says.
According to Borsos, the nature of fast food restaurants makes them difficult to organize into a union that could provide more protection. The small staffs and high turnover rate in the fast food industry make those businesses a low priority for unions to come in and try to organize.
Workers instead must just hope for the best.
“What typically happens in the fast food restaurant industry — [if] you don’t like it, you quit,” Borsos says. “And you go to another fast food restaurant and hopefully that’s a little bit better.”
‘Maybe I’m going to call’
Those union jobs have gone away with the era of large-scale factory employment. In 2011, 12 percent of American workers belonged to a union, many of them in the public sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1983, that number was 20 percent.
Fisher’s mother, Kimberly Plummer, knows about the protections of a union. Plummer, 39, builds parts for furnaces at Kaiser Aluminum. It’s a union job, and Plummer doesn’t have to worry about the instability or the last-minute calls — like the text message Fisher received about the staff meeting.
“That was the night of my son’s football game at [Eastern Washington University], but we didn’t even get to stay there to congratulate him, it was sent last-minute,” Plummer says. “It wasn’t even 24 hours notice. I don’t get the ‘your life has to revolve on maybe I’m going to call you.’”
Since Fisher’s firing, her family has had to step in to help with bills. Fisher’s father paid her cell phone bill for a month. Plummer bought some groceries and gave her daughter gas money.
Fisher, who lives near Gonzaga University with her grandmother, pays $200 each month for rent, though really it’s a contribution toward the family’s well being.
“When Kayla lost her job, that was food out of the fridge,” Plummer says.
Plummer sees the ordeals, however, as more than just the pressure of bills.
“Her working for Subway was for her to try and grow into her own person,” Plummer says. “I want her to move forward and something like [her experience at Subway] could be devastating to a young adult.”
Fisher starts a new job this week — at a different fast food restaurant chain. The manager “wants me to be the person up front on the tills, working with people, because that’s what I’m good at,” Fisher says.
“I am excited about that,” she adds. “I’m ready to be back.”