Bloomberg has an excellent story on low-wage work and inequality, comparing a longtime McDonald’s worker to the company’s CEO, who makes several hundred times as much money.

It’s a notable departure from often frustrating Bloomberg-style writing and editing. Even the headline, while still Bloombergian, is pretty great:

McDonald’s $8.25 Man and $8.75 Million CEO Shows Pay Gap

And this story shows a lot more than that.

Bloomberg profiles Tyree Johnson, a 44-year-old Chicagoan who’s worked at McDonald’s for 20 years but still makes minimum wage, which in Illinois is $8.25 an hour. That’s about $16,500 a year, assuming 2,000 hours of work.

It’s actually worse. Like many retail workers, Johnson wants full-time work but often doesn’t get it, even after picking up hours at a second McDonald’s. Because he splits time between two restaurants, and his other boss, oddly enough, doesn’t like him smelling like greasy food, we get this vivid lede:

Tyree Johnson scrubs himself with a bar of soap in a McDonald’s (MCD) bathroom and puts on fresh deodorant. He stashes his toiletries in a Kenneth Cole bag, a gift from his mother who works the counter at Macy’s, and hops on an El train. His destination: another McDonald’s.

Johnson isn’t one of Chicago’s many homeless people who seek shelter in fast-food joints. He’s a McDonald’s employee, at both stores — one in the Loop, the other about a mile away in the shadow of Holy Name Cathedral.

But Johnson is about one step above homelessness, living in a single-room occupancy hotel—a flophouse—for $320 a month.

The first reaction for lots of people reading this piece will be: There must be something wrong with his work if he’s still making minimum wage.

But if Johnson was such a bad employee, he presumably wouldn’t have lasted 20 years with the same chain. And Bloomberg reports his own explanation: That he’s had his wages reduced when a franchise changes hands or when he gets transferred, which has happened several times. Now his bosses tell him he’s getting slow. What will Johnson do in another 20 years? What happens if the “Rise Above” crowd succeeds in raising his retirement/Medicare age?

Bloomberg doesn’t ask these questions, but it doesn’t need to: They’re implicit. And it gives us good context.

For instance, we not only learn that fast-food employment has been growing much faster than overall employment, Bloomberg also reports that older workers have increasingly been taking these jobs as better work has become harder to find:

In 2010, 16- to 19-year-olds made up 17 percent of food preparation and serving workers, down from almost a quarter in 2000, as older, underemployed Americans took those jobs.

There’s a lot going on in this piece, and Bloomberg weaves us together pretty seamlessly: The expansion and aging of the fast-food workforce, the mistreatment of workers and increasing-activism angle, inequality, executive compensation, and even for-profit education. Johnson went to one of these schools in the late 1980s, got a computer certificate, and never got a job with it. Bloomberg says he finally paid off his student loans after twenty-something years.

This, though, isn’t right (emphasis mine):

The last federal increase to the minimum wage was in 2009, to $7.25. When adjusted for inflation, the wage was worth $9.07 an hour in 1968, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

The minimum wage was $1.60 in 1968, which is $10.58 when adjusted for inflation.

But that’s a relatively minor miss in a terrific story, which is itself part of a worthy series on inequality.


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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.