Things I Learned During My Time In Food Service – #1

I recently quit my job working as a food preparer at a cafeteria.  It was an awful gig, but it paid the bills and, for the job that I was hired to do, the pay and benefits weren’t terrible.  Health insurance, about two weeks of vacation time a year, very little sick time and, what really made it work out at the time, was a 6am – 2pm shift.  Had to clock out for lunch, of course, so they were seven and a half hour days at a little over ten dollars and some change per hour, but hey—easy work, easy schedule.  What more could a good-for-nothing writer and aspiring entrepreneur ask for?

Well, turns out, someone like that should have asked for management that had at least an iota of respect for its employees.

I say “it’s employees” because the company I worked for was an international corporation—they had locations on at least three continents and something like a dozen countries or so—the benefits, pay, and hours all came down from Olympus (God knows where that actually was), the eight or ten levels of management between us measly earthlings and the gods above were little more than bureaucratic positions occupied by human beings that surrendered control of their cerebellums to the mind-control waves of brainless administration.  The people occupying those managerial positions don’t really have enough agency for me to rightfully blame them for their actions.  All I can reasonably do is blame the positions they occupied.

On a side note, I do wonder if when they got to work they had to plug themselves into some kind of robo-chamber for pod people to store their biological bodies in.

This is to be a weekly or bi-weekly set of blurbs intended to give some brief insight into the lives of lower working-class stratum of society—something you college kids of today probably have absolutely no understanding of given that most of you have never worked an honest day in your life.  No big deal though, I don’t blame you; if I had the option, I’d probably do something similar.

  1. Don’t get sick. If you get sick, come to work anyway.

This may seem counter-intuitive.  After all, this is food service.  If you’re coughing, sneezing, bleeding uncontrollably, pissing blood, vomiting, shitting water, or any combination therein, then—intuitively—you should probably avoid any situation in which you’re dealing with customers, food, or serving customers food.  That is, of course, unless you work in food service.

If you work in food service, or at least the company I’m not prepared to name, then sure, go ahead.  Show up for work.  Feeling queasy?  Vomit into the trash bin, wash your hands, turn around and prepare some raw vegetables for immediate consumption.  No big deal.  Got the sniffles?  Sneeze into your armpit, put on a new pair of gloves, and go to work brining that soup out.  Who cares?  Your supervisor probably won’t.  The safety auditor will—at least, she would when she isn’t too busy reaming someone out for the internal temperature of insulated milk containers being one degree off spec.  More on that later, though

It isn’t really that they don’t expect anyone to get sick.  They do, after all, allow you three days of sick leave (cumulative time; you only actually receive a full 24 hours of sick time after you’ve been working there uninterrupted for a full year).  Three days is plenty of time to recover from something like strep throat (usually a week), the flu  (three to four days minimum), or any variety of medical procedures involving surgery or extensive opiate usage (god knows).  And hey, you suffer from migraines or chronic and repeated sinus infections?  Well, too bad.  You got three days, fam.  No more.

That isn’t to say you can’t take time off.  You’ll just have attendance points added to your record.  And they’ll tell you to be aware!  Your attendance points are adding up!  That might imply disciplinary action in any other company.  In this one, it’s little more than a vague threat issued under the pretenses of keeping order.  They do not and will not take any action against you unless you’re already intent on never coming back.  And you really shouldn’t.  It’s awful.  In fact, they probably won’t even take action then.  Nobody really knows.  Nobody’s really had action taken against them.

Everyone that works in this position needs that paycheck.  It isn’t really in their best interests to lose a day of pay, and when you only have 24 hours of sick time across a year’s time of working, they’re typically a little hesitant to use the precious stuff.  The connections between infectious diseases, working with food, and serving customers, although outlined quite explicitly in the employee handbook and regurgitated every so often during employee retraining periods, seem to be mysterious things to those of us on the ground that are responsible for upholding any sort of standard.  The problem is that nobody cares, and everyone needs that paycheck.

This is, of course, completely ignoring the obvious: the harder you work, the more susceptible to disease your immune system becomes.  The harder you work while you’re sick, the longer you stay sick and the more likely you are to get even sicker.  Anyone with the brain development of a six-year-old knows this.  The management at a large food services company seems to either forget what they learned at six years old, or they forget that they’ve hired human beings with imperfect immune systems.  On some level, I’ve always suspected that it’s actually neither, and that they simply don’t care.  There’s either too much pressure from above to increase productivity or too much pressure from below to adequately think straight.

But what about the customers?  Would they be turned off by being handed a newly-packed sandwich by a pale sneezing zombie who looks at any moment that he’s about to keel over?  Presumably.  God knows if ours ever were.  I never heard any complaints and I’m pretty certain that our supervisor didn’t either.  Very little seemed to phase these people; not mysterious-looking food being served on the hotline, not the inappropriate behavior, not the obvious and utterly indiscreet dereliction of duties on the part of the staff—in fact, the only thing that did phase them usually had to do with an interruption of their daily routine.  Like when machines stopped working or self-serve bars were down for the day.  More on that later.

Of course, all of this can be cleared up with a simple note from your doctor (hey, remember when they told you that life after high school was just like high school? Turns out they were right!).  But now you’re spending twenty-five to fifty dollars in copays, an hour or more of travel time, and God knows how long in a waiting room surrounded by fellow infectees, all for a piece of paper informing your company bureaucrats that yes, you actually are sick.  In the meantime, you’ve wasted the valuable time of the doctor, who is just going to write out a prescription for rest, hot chicken noodle soup, and plenty of ginger tea.  Oh wait, they don’t do that anymore.  Make that an upped dosage of prednisone and some low-grade antibiotics that you might not even need.

To be fair, if you have even scintilla of self-respect, you probably won’t be in food service long.  Unless you’re employed at a real restaurant and enjoy the good shifts with high tipping volume, but that’s a whole separate can of worms.  And to be fair, career cafeteria workers generally aren’t the smartest, most honest, or hardest working people around.  But maybe, if the bureaucratic structure was downsized a bit and organized in a way that actually made sense, we could avoid lunacy like this.

More things from the bowels of the industry to come.  Stay tuned.

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