‘Thankless’ and ‘dangerous’: Former McDonald’s and Burger King workers talk quitting

December 17, 2021, 9:39 PM UTC

Hard work, low pay, little respect: It’s a combo meal that has workers fleeing the fast food industry in droves. Chain restaurants have tried to retain employees with the promise of cash bonuses, same-day pay, and better benefits. But workers aren’t buying.

The almost $300 billion industry has been hit hard by the so-called Great Resignation. Quit rates in the restaurant and accommodations industry have been more than double the average quit rates of all industries since June 2021, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A rise in the number of job openings over the same time period indicates those vacant positions aren’t all being filled. 

Some fast food workers have left for new jobs in the open labor market that offer more money or better hours. Others have quit their jobs without anything else lined up, and are biding their time until they find the right opportunity. 

Fortune spoke with three former fast food workers in different parts of the country about the reasons they left, what they think about the industry, and what they’re doing now.  

Stressful working conditions

Luke Presnell, 19, lives in Johnson City, Tenn., and has worked at both McDonald’s and Burger King in the past year and a half. 

The most difficult part of the job, according to Presnell, was the stress of trying to reach unrealistic turnaround times while understaffed. 

“They wanted everything done within 90 seconds or less regardless of what it was,” he says of McDonald’s. Some food items, like the Quarter Pounder, were extremely difficult to complete in that time—especially if the fresh patty stuck to the grill.

Presnell says that at McDonald’s, he burned his hand on one of the machines in the kitchen, and other workers told him to put mustard on it, an allegedly common practice that the company was criticized for back in 2015. Beyond that, Presnell says, he didn’t get any first aid.  

“It’s a thankless job, and it’s a dangerous job,” he says. 

McDonald’s franchise owner Jason Carter, who operates the restaurant that Presnell worked at, said in an email via the company’s press office that his stores all have first aid kits appropriate for treating minor burns, and that staff members are trained to call 911 for more serious injuries. 

Presnell left McDonald’s around November of 2020, and started working at Burger King soon after. He says the pace was more reasonable, but he was assigned to primarily work the grill—a job that got hot and uncomfortable fast while wearing a face mask. 

It prompted him to find another job at a call center, and he handed in his two weeks’ notice.

Problems with management

Ieshia Townsend, 34, lives in Chicago and says she tolerated years of disrespectful treatment from both customers and managers during her work in the fast food industry. But the way she was treated while pregnant with her second son in 2018 truly soured her on the job. 

She says her managers wanted her to stand for extended periods of time despite her doctor’s advice, adding that they were stingy about letting her take breaks. 

“They just did not care,” she says. 

In the email from the McDonald’s press office, franchise owner Vincent Hale said his store’s policy on pregnancy-related health issues is to follow instructions from the doctor of an employee. 

Presnell had his own disappointments with management. 

After he gave his two weeks’ notice, but while he was still working at Burger King, he says he was sexually assaulted by a coworker who grabbed him. Presnell left early that day and told store management the next morning, but he says his manager played down the incident and did not reprimand the coworker. 

“I’m over it now, but it’s something I’ll never forget,” he says. 

Burger King did not respond to Fortune’s request for comment.

The pandemic made everything worse 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, it only reinforced Townsend’s impression that the company didn’t care about her or the other workers. 

She says she was forced to buy her own PPE when her work didn’t provide it for her. When she came home after a long shift, she would go straight in through the back door of her home, shower, and wipe down the bathroom before she would let her sons or husband hug her hello. 

Townsend says the stress made her sick. She has epilepsy, anxiety, and asthma, which she says were all aggravated by the high-stress environment of McDonald’s during the pandemic, coupled with working as a delivery driver on alternate nights. 

Earlier this year, her doctor told her she needed to take breaks when she was having chest pains or experiencing other medical symptoms. In April, Townsend says, she asked her McDonald’s managers for a break because her chest hurt, and they told her to wait until the end of the shift.

She walked out on the spot and texted her resignation.

“I literally had to walk out because they thought I was going to wait for a shift change,” Townsend says.

Franchise owner Hale did not comment on Townsend’s chest pain allegations. He said that at the start of the pandemic, the store provided masks, soap, and sanitizer to workers, and installed protective barriers. 

Even before the pandemic, Sade Andrews, 20, of Tampa, says her job at McDonald’s was stressful. Dealing with customers could be challenging, and she and her colleagues also had to manage drunk and belligerent people who came by the restaurant after nearby bars closed. 

But she says COVID made everything worse. Her shifts got cut, and she ended up taking overnight shifts to make enough money. The additional duties of cleaning and sanitizing to observe pandemic precautions were wearing, she says, and squeezing into small spaces with her coworkers was stressful. 

“A lot of people didn’t feel safe,” she says. Many of her colleagues quit—some of them suddenly, leaving the other workers on the line struggling to keep up and take care of customers. 

Andrews also worried about contracting COVID herself. “Sometimes, you would have workers, they’ll be there, and then they wouldn’t be there for a week or two,” she says. Then the worker would return, but management would never disclose why they were absent. In one case, after a worker returned, he confirmed to Andrews that he had had COVID-19.

Kim Scott, the VP of human resources at Caspers Company, the franchisee that owns the McDonald’s where Andrews worked, said, via the same email from McDonald’s press office, that the restaurant has contact tracing in place and that it is policy to notify employees of exposure risk. 

When Andrews asked to switch to the morning shift earlier this year because her sister (and source of transportation) was leaving for college, the company wouldn’t accommodate her, and she left. She was surprised that the company didn’t try harder to keep her as an employee, especially during a worker shortage. 

“I know a lot of people think it’s easy working at fast food,” she says. “Once I started working there, I saw it differently.” 

Low pay

Townsend started working at McDonald’s in 2015 while she was caring for her mother, brother, and young son, Mariano, who is now 10. The job was initially a godsend.

“I didn’t have money to pay for diapers and other essentials he needed,” she says. 

Notably, Presnell, Townsend and Andrews say their pay wasn’t the main reason why they left, although the salary some have found elsewhere is higher. 

Presnell says his wages were about the same at McDonald’s and Burger King, around $8.50 per hour. He recently started working for the U.S. Postal Service, earning $16.87 an hour plus health, dental, and vision care. It’s enough for him to rent his own apartment, and feel more secure.

“It wasn’t so much the wage that was a deal breaker, it was the poor management,” notes Presnell.  

What happens now?

Presnell says he would consider working in fast food again if it were somewhere like Chick-fil-A or Pal’s, chains he’s heard have a good reputation with workers. Otherwise, he has no plans to return to his former employers. 

Townsend, who left her McDonald’s job in April, says that driving food delivery has given her the flexibility to be with her children that she didn’t have as a fast food worker. 

She began organizing with Fight for $15, a unionization effort within the fast food industry, in 2016, and has continued those efforts even after she left her job at McDonald’s. She even led a strike of McDonald’s workers in Chicago in May of this year. Townsend says she would be willing to return to fast food work, but only if she was part of a union. 

“I think, honestly, if McDonald’s had a union, I wouldn’t have had to go through all that,” she says of her own experiences with the company. “A union needs to be put in, so we’re legally protected. All workers, especially Black and brown workers.” 

Andrews, who is also involved in the Fight for $15, quit her McDonald’s job in June, but hasn’t found a new one. She says she might return to the industry someday, but is acutely aware of its many problems. 

Right now she’s living with her mom, trying to regroup, and thinking about working at Amazon or at the airport—maybe even trying to become a flight attendant. 

“You don’t want to be left out in the cold with no work,” she says. 

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