Lance, 24, clocks into the fast-food chain restaurant where he works at about 4:00 p.m. each day. As manager, he makes $9.75 an hour leading a crew of team members and is responsible for everything from addressing angry customers to making sure employees are doing what they are supposed to do. It’s not an easy job. One day a drive-through customer, frustrated because the spicy chicken legs he wanted weren’t ready, threw the extra mild chicken that Lance offered him back in his face. “F— you, you f—in’ piece of shit,” the man shouted as he drove off. That kind of abuse wears you down, Lance said.
He returns home to his wife and three children about midnight. By the time he wakes up, his wife is already at her job, also a fast-food chain restaurant. She leaves for work at about 4:00 a.m., and will return anywhere between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. During the few hours they have together, one of them is usually catching up on much-needed sleep, so they barely get to see each other during the week. Because of a religious conviction, Lance doesn’t work on Sundays, which his employer mostly respects. For the vast majority of the week, though, either Lance or his wife is at work.
“We’re busting our butts to support our family and make each other happy,” he said, “and at the same time, we’re trying not to let it affect our relationship.”
But Lance and his wife have a problem this month. They are short a few hundred dollars on rent, so Lance took out a $200 loan from a payday lender. He knows that he’ll end up owing about $350, but what else are they going to do? He told his district manager that he needs a pay raise, because $9.75 an hour isn’t cutting it. (He says he would be happy with $10.50 an hour.) He tried selling one of their cars for a few hundred dollars, but as he was on his way to deliver the car, it broke down. It’s sitting in the parking lot of the Baptist church on the hill, and Lance’s options are dwindling.
“I get paid nothing to do everything,” Lance said with frustration. “I come home every day mentally, physically exhausted from the amount of work I’ve put in, and my checks are pocket change basically. I personally don’t think it’s fair.”
‘I get paid nothing to do everything.’
Lance and his wife are the kind of couple that you are grateful to have as neighbors. They’re not hooked on drugs, they go to work every morning, they help out the elderly neighbor who recently had a stroke, they plant pretty flowers in their front yard and hang a homemade wreath on the door. And, now, they’re short a few hundred bucks on rent.
Even if Lance were to get promoted to assistant general manager, he figures he’d only be making about $10.50 an hour. The general manager is a salaried position, but there is only one in each store. In other words, opportunities for climbing the ladder and achieving more financial stability are limited. But Lance consistently gets at least 35 hours of work a week, and he figures it beats what he has experienced since the time he entered the workforce as a newly married 18-year-old.
There was the time he had a factory job through a temp agency, a job that he liked and worked very hard at so that he could get hired as a full-time employee at the six-month “hire or fire” point. When he injured his arm on the job, he didn’t dare tell the plant manager about his injury, and especially not that it happened on the job site.
“I know if you say ‘I got hurt at work,’ they find a reason to fire you,” he explained.
When he went to the hospital, he lied and said that he got injured while removing cinder blocks at home. The doctor put his arm in a sling and told him not to work for two weeks. Lance explained what really happened to the plant manager, and after a two-week absence, returned to work. As the “hire or fire” point approached, Lance asked the plant manager if he could get hired full-time.
“Most definitely,” Lance recalled his supervisor saying, “You seem to be a hard worker.”
The day before the six months were up, though, he received a call on his way home from work. It was the temp agency representative at the plant, informing him that they no longer needed him. When Lance asked why, she said it was because of his “attendance”: he had taken two weeks off. Lance reminded her about the injury, and that his supervisor had said that he could have whatever time he needed to get his arm healed.
“Well, I’m sorry,” the representative responded—and hung up the phone.
As Lance put it, “They basically screwed me over.”
The portrait that emerges from Lance’s stories is of unforgiving workplaces manned by authoritarian supervisors.
Lance told me about lots of other times that he or his wife had been “screwed” in their short work careers.
One time, again as a temp agent, he clocked in to the factory at 7:01 a.m., and his supervisor called him into the office to ask why he was late (clock-in time was 7:00 a.m.). He would have been fired, his supervisor said, if his production levels hadn’t been so high for the last week. Lance apologized, and promised that it wouldn’t happen again.
Another time he was fired for smoking on his break. The supervisor explained that they had a strict no-smoking policy in the building, and though Lance had smoked the cigarette far away from the building, he could not afford to be lax because other employees might notice and take advantage of him.
And once Lance’s wife was told by a general manager that her lack of complete scheduling flexibility—she can’t work whenever they need her because somebody has to watch the kids while Lance is at work—could be a strike against her in considering whether to promote her.
I could go on with even more stories that Lance told me. The portrait that emerges is of unforgiving workplaces manned by authoritarian supervisors and impersonal temp agency representatives. In this environment, it doesn’t really matter that you’re a mother or father or husband or wife. You are merely a worker, and schedule flexibility and “kissing butt” with the bosses (as Lance put it) are key to your advancement. Sometimes, it seems as if there is almost no room for regular human error (clocking in a single minute late). In this environment, it’s easy to see how a person could feel used, like a means to an end. It’s easy to see why Lance thinks that “true hard-working Americans get screwed over in the long run.”
As my wife and fellow researcher, Amber, and I have recounted before, when we first began interviewing working-class young adults, we tended to think that cases like Lance’s were an exception—perhaps even the exaggerated stories of a person whose real problem does not lie with difficult supervisors, but with a poor work ethic.
But after stories like Lance’s kept popping up in our interviews—we didn’t set out to inquire about people’s bad experiences in the workplace—I can no longer believe that that is the whole story. To be sure, I’ve heard plenty of stories in which it becomes clear that the person could benefit from some more character at work. In fact, Lance volunteered that at the beginning of his work career, at 18 years old, “I had poor character and I was a bad employee.” He pointed to his first job after marriage: he worked in the deli department at a grocery store. He hated the job so much that he sometimes failed to show up for work just because he didn’t feel like it, which ultimately led to his abrupt departure after his boss threatened to fire him.
Why is our economy failing people like Lance?
“I’ve matured a lot,” Lance said. Still, it has been a long road to stability for Lance and his family. Before they started renting a house a few months ago, they lived with family members. The only other time that they could afford to rent was when Lance worked at a retirement home. When the home cut everyone’s hours (they hired more workers and cut the hours of existing employees), Lance and his family were forced to stop renting.
“It seems like to even make it in this world you have to spend 300, 400 thousand dollars to go to college for something that’s big, for instance a lawyer or doctor or something like that,” Lance said. He doesn’t see how the work that is available to him will get his family to stability.
“People that deserve…nice, happy lives—that’s what they’re working so hard to get—don’t accomplish it,” Lance said. “They’re merely chasing that.”
Why are things this way, I asked Lance—why is it that hard-working couples like Lance and his wife can barely afford rent?
“Honestly, I don’t know,” he said—though he knows it’s unjust.
Here is what I know: this young, married father and his wife have done a lot of things right, at least by the standards of many conservatives. They graduated from high school, got married, and bore their children within marriage. They aren’t “living off the government.” The problem is not that they need to work longer hours, or have a better work ethic, or make more responsible choices about romantic partners and children. And yet, they are a couple hundred dollars short on their rent.
David Brooks has noted that “We are clearly heading toward another great debate about the nature of capitalism.” In that debate, we should be guided by an honest inquiry into the lives of people like Lance’s family. Why is our economy failing them? How is it that a person like Lance feels as if, despite all of his hard work, he is screwed? Will we dismiss the accounts of people like Lance as grumblings of lazy people who need to work longer hours and gather the ambition to climb the corporate ladder? Or will we take them seriously? Whenever we debate the merits and problems of contemporary capitalism, we need the accounts of flesh-and-blood people like Lance to better understand how the economy we have built is serving (or failing) ordinary workers and the families that they form.