the audit

McDonald’s through management’s eyes, in the WSJ

Rude employees who, oh by the way, make poverty wages
April 12, 2013

The Wall Street Journal reports that internal McDonald’s documents say that the fast food chain’s customer service is “broken”—that it takes too long to get through the drive through, that getting their food is “chaotic,” and that its employees are not friendly enough.

McDonald’s Corp., battling back from recent earnings disappointments, is putting unusual emphasis on a longtime challenge: getting its far-flung workforce to provide service with a smile.

You smile while trying to shovel terrible-for-you food into the maws of impatient customers you’re making obese while getting $7.25 an hour—and the stigma of having a McJob and smelling like a heart attack all the time. For an insight into the minimum wage life, read this Old Journal report from Rick Wartzman—the kind of thing the Murdoch-era paper doesn’t do:

Sometimes, she and her best friend, Ruby Moore, sit in Ms. Williams’s back yard and, as trains thunder by, they talk about how they just can’t get ahead. Ms. Moore, 51, has earned around the minimum wage for years, first by working in the kitchen of a drug-treatment center, and now by cooking for recovering addicts of a different sort — the gamblers who’ve surfaced along with the glittering casino boats on the Red River. “It’s much harder than it used to be,” she says. “You’ve got to skip this bill in order to pay that bill.”

“You think you’re moving forward,” adds Ms. Williams, “but you’re just moving backwards.”

As Dan Gross notes, the modern Journal never raises the question in this story of whether McDonald’s paying its workers poverty wages might have something to do with its poor service. As close as the Journal gets is this oh-by-the-way mention of the wages of one employee who blames the problems on training:

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Monica George, a McDonald’s employee in Brooklyn, N.Y., said she can understand why customers complain, and that there are frustrations on both sides of the counter. “Let’s say I’m in front at the register and the grill’s not pushing out food quickly enough. So you have to wait on food, and the customer is getting aggravated at you because you’re not giving them the food quick enough, and the grill gets aggravated with the cashier because we’re asking where the food is,” she said.

Ms. George, who says she earns $7.25 an hour, said one problem behind slow service and inaccurate orders is that employees are trained to do specific tasks and don’t always understand what other employees are doing.

That’s $7.25 an hour—in New York City. It’s worth noting that hundreds of McDonald’s and other fast-food chain workers walked out a week ago—a strike the Journal never reported on.

Perhaps the WSJ thought mentioning the wage was enough. It isn’t. Neither is writing that “employee turnover also could be a contributor” without explicitly mentioning wages as a critical factover in the 60 percent turnover rate of the fast-food industry.

Then there’s this:

McDonald’s also began using new software recently that helps restaurant owners decide the optimal number of employees to have on hand at a given time.

Well, that should provoke a smile—unless it’s a Walmart-style just-in-time scheduling system—where ill-paid employees work weird, unpredictable shifts that further upend their lives. In that case, we might be seeing more frowny faces.

Here’s another place where some context would have helped take the heat off poorly paid labor:

In QSR Magazine’s annual Drive-Thru Study, the only comprehensive industry comparison of customer service at fast-food chains, other restaurants have consistently outperformed McDonald’s in those areas. In last year’s study, the average service time at the McDonald’s drive-through studied was 188.83 seconds, compared with 129.75 for industry leader Wendy’s Co.

But what if the average McDonald’s has way, way more business than the average Wendy’s, as seems likely? Sure enough, the average McDonald’s franchise in 2010 did $2.4 million a year, while the average Wendy’s did just $1.4 million and the average McDonald’s has twice as many cars in it at any given time as the average Wendy’s.

In other words, it’s more a congestion problem than a labor problem.

And that’s on management too.

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 Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.