It’s 6 p.m. on a summer evening and the residents of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York are winding down after another long week of work. At a concrete school playground surrounded by a mesh wire fence, a small group of kids plays in the amber light while the tinny song of an ice cream truck rings out over the frenzied yells of a pickup basketball game. While many of her neighbors are thinking about dinner and the night’s plans, Shantel Walker’s workday has not yet begun.
Walker arrives at the playground on a bicycle decorated with a Black Lives Matter bandana and “Fight for 15” stickers; Destiny’s Child plays from her makeshift boom box—a tablet with a shattered screen and a portable speaker system, all bungee-corded to some cardboard resting atop her bike. Dressed in a New York City Freedom Fighters T-shirt bearing the words “I can’t breathe,” an enormous wrap-around watch, and a bedazzled cross around her neck, she is all warmth and quick laughs.
Walker, who is 35, has worked for Papa John’s for the better part of two decades, and that experience has fundamentally shaped her beliefs, her identity, and now, her mission in life.
Rather than accept the unlivable wages and unpredictable scheduling that working in fast food often requires, Walker decided to try to make a positive change for herself and other workers like her. In 2013, she joined the Fight for 15—the nationwide advocacy movement that successfully won an increase in the minimum wage in New York City and elsewhere.
She now spends the little free time she has doing unpaid organizing work for Fast Food Justice and Fast Food Forward, two grassroots advocacy nonprofits geared to the needs of fast food industry workers.
Walker never thought she would spend adulthood behind the counter of a fast food joint. At an early age, she had plans for a career in electronics. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a fiberoptic technician,” she says. “I was really into working with my hands, computer rebuilding. I took classes in high school.”
But after personal and family problems disrupted her late teens, she got her first fast food job at 17, an age at which many of her friends also got jobs in the industry. “A lot of them couldn’t find other jobs to their liking so they had to settle for fast food. Because, remember, we had no experience,” says Walker. But unlike her cousin, who once worked at the same Papa John’s and is now a school teacher, Walker never made it out of fast food.
In decades past, workers like Walker would likely have organized as part of a union, but they don’t all have that luxury today. Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project and a Fast Food Justice board member, told Civil Eats that unpaid organizing through nonprofit organizations, outside the protection that a union might provide, is becoming prevalent despite the risks.
“The fast food workers who went on strike five years ago were regular people risking their jobs to take a stand,” she said. “Fast Food Justice is the result of fast food workers uniting to educate and protect one another, improve their communities, and create change in New York City.”
Stuck in an Entry-Level Job
The 3.7 million people who work for fast food companies are older and more educated than ever before, with an average age of 29 and more than 40 percent having at least attended college. The older workers get, the less likely they will be to escape the trap of a low-paying fast food job. Many people can and do get stuck in these jobs for a variety of reasons: A decline in well-paying manufacturing jobs, the decades-long weakening of labor unions, and stagnant wage growth have all kept fast food workers from moving on to better jobs.
Low wages are just one of the staggering challenges fast food workers face.
An estimated 87 percent receive no healthcare benefits through their employers; in fact, in anticipation of the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employees who worked 30 hours or more per week had to receive health-care benefits by 2016, many franchisees promised to put most of their workers on part-time schedules, and it appears they followed through. In a Goldman Sachs study released in June of 2016, Goldman economist Alec Phillips wrote, “We would estimate that a few hundred thousand workers might be working part-time involuntarily as a result of the Affordable Care Act.”
According to Papa John’s 2016 Annual Report, for instance, the company had 23,100 employees, approximately 20,100 of whom were “restaurant team members.” Restaurant team members mostly work part-time, while full-time shift leaders, drivers, and corporate employees are generally the only ones eligible for Papa John’s health care, 401(k), and life insurance plans.
This sizable number of part-timers is not unusual for the fast-food industry. Eighty-six percent of the employees of Yum! Brands, the corporate owner of KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, work part-time; similarly, nearly 80 percent of the employees at corporate-owned McDonald’s stores work part-time. Some chains—but not most—offer limited benefits to part-timers. (Papa John’s did not respond to Civil Eats’ repeated requests for a comment.)
Unpredictable scheduling and last-minute shifts are also a recurring problem for many fast food workers. With no guarantee of regular hours, many workers find it impossible to arrange for child care, schedule second or third jobs, or pay their monthly bills.
In New York, Walker was among the many fast food workers who tirelessly fought for change, resulting in a set of bills called the “Fair Work Week” laws, which went into effect in November 2017. In addition to outlawing abusive scheduling practices like “clopenings” (which require workers to both open and close the store) and requiring ample notice of shift changes, the bills also require employers to give employees the option of deducting part of their paycheck and donating it to a nonprofit of their choice. The latter is an essential tool to empower organizations created to advocate for the interest of fast food workers. Not long after New York City signed into law the Fair Workweek legislation package, Oregon followed suit with a similar series of bills.
“I used to leave at 5 in the morning and have to come back to work at 9 or 10 in the morning,” says Walker. “What’s the sense of going home? For what? Get a little wink of sleep and then you feel so drained and bad. You don’t even know if you can go on.” She adds that it’s not uncommon for employees working double shifts to simply sleep in the back of the store, and that many of her coworkers rarely see their families. “When they wake up, their kids are going to school. When they come home, their kids are sleeping,” she says.
Despite her erratic work hours, Walker is thankful to live in a small apartment nearby. “A lot of my coworkers, they’re right now displaced—they don’t have a stable home to live in. A lot of them are couch surfing.” Some of them are paying to live in shelters and cannot save money. “So it’s like you’re working to live in the shelter,” she says. “But where you gonna go? It’s like a double-edged sword.”
Fighting Wage Theft
When the Brooklyn Papa John’s first opened, Walker says that she took on more and more responsibilities and eventually worked in a managerial capacity—although she claimed she was never paid for it. “I was working 60 hours a week. I dedicated my mindset and my everything to the store—to making money.”
She speaks about those times with a sense of pride. “I helped build the business up for my neighbors around here. I was the one on the ground making sure everything was done, you know. The first year we made a million dollars. We got a lot of plaques.” In 2013, things at the franchise began to change. The other employees complained about how they were being treated by the owner. Then, they threatened to strike.
It turned out that the Papa John’s franchise where Walker worked was one of many throughout New York City where owners were accused of stealing wages from their employees. Soon, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman began prosecuting one fast food chain after another for wage theft. Following a rash of lawsuits, one Papa John’s franchise owner in New York City went to jail, while several others were stiffly fined. The citywide violations occurred between 2008 and 2014 and involved a range of illegal behavior including failure to pay overtime, pay delivery personnel minimum wage, reimburse workers for expenses, and more.
In 2015, a county judge ruled against the owners of the Papa John’s where Walker worked and fined the owners nearly $800,000 for owed wages, liquidated damages, and interest arising from the wage theft. The store was sold and the proceeds were distributed to the underpaid employees.
These events sparked a new awareness in Walker. “I was doing all the work, but only making $7.50. And everybody else was making $7.25,” she says, referring to the New York City minimum wage in 2013. “I was already waking up, but that’s what made me say, ‘I gotta do something about this.'”
It was then that she began organizing with her co-workers and fighting for a higher minimum wage and more predictable work hours.
Soon, she began to actively organize alongside the 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU). “They helped us a lot and I really commend them for getting out there with us on the strike lines,” she says. “Showing support, solidarity, and love.”
Shortly after Walker began advocating for $15 and the right to unionize, she was fired by the franchise’s new owner in 2015. “My co-workers knew that I was a manager—but the owner knew I was a leader in the Fight for 15, so she was trying to mess with me. She said I wasn’t a manager.”
She filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) which resulted in a settlement agreement. Walker considered this a win—that she had successfully proven retaliation for her activism—but the settlement agreement stipulates that the franchise owner “does not admit that it has violated the National Labor Relations Act.” According to the agreement, she was awarded nearly $6,000 in lost wages.
Although Walker’s NLRB grievance did not allege involvement by Papa John’s at the corporate level, a recent regulatory change will make it more difficult for franchise employees to hold fast-food conglomerates liable for illegal labor practices that take place at the franchise level. In mid-December, an Obama-era ruling that encouraged both corporate accountability and union organizing was overturned.
Under Walker’s NLRB settlement, her Papa John’s franchise was also required to ensure that she was hired back, that she would not be fired again for participating in a labor union, and that the franchise would post a notice that employees would not be penalized or fired for participating in a union or advocating for their rights. However, Walker says that although she was re-hired in accordance with the terms of the agreement, “I haven’t been a manager in the store and I know that [the new owner is] not going to make me a manager again.”
Still, she feels empowered. “Discrimination happens a lot in the workplace, but customers … don’t have any idea what’s happening behind that counter. They don’t see the retaliatory measures. They don’t see your hours getting cut and cut. They don’t see your boss talking to you like you’re worthless. That’s why I’m so vocal and adamant with what I do,” she says.
Last November, the founder and CEO of Papa John’s, John Schnatter, blamed flagging sales at the pizza chain on the NFL’s failure to resolve what he referred to as the “debacle” that arose after Colin Kaepernick and other players knelt during the national anthem in protest against police violence aimed at African Americans. A series of backtracking tweets by the chain did little to assuage public outrage at Schnatter’s comments. Schnatter stepped down from his role as CEO shortly afterwards, although his replacement, former COO Steve Ritchie, didn’t link the move to Schnatter’s remarks and simply said it was “the right time to make this change.”
[Update: On January 9, Shantel Walker is quoted in a New York Times article about Fast Food Justice, noting that the group has signed up 1,200 fast-food workers to donate money each month to advocate for their rights.]
Today, Walker continues to work at the Papa John’s for $12 per hour, the new minimum wage for fast food workers in New York City; which is mandated to increase to $15 per hour by the end of 2018. She earns around $18,000 per year for 30 hours a week.
“Between rent, utilities, phone bill, MetroCard, and food—that’s about everything I earn. I ride my bike to work because it got too expensive to take the bus,” she says, noting she also has to buy her own uniforms and do more laundry than most people because her work involved getting covered in flour and pizza dough.
It’s growing dark and I ask Walker if she ever dreams about getting out, about working somewhere else. “I want to make a better life for my future,” she says, but adds, “I’m still thinking about doing something different. Still thinking.” Walker has aspirations of leaving her fast food job behind for a more rewarding career, perhaps organizing and fighting for worker’s rights full-time, but hasn’t found a way yet to make this a reality. “Right now, there’s so many things going on in this world that need attention. Maybe I can use my expertise in something that’s good for mankind.”
In the meantime, she plans to stay with Papa John’s, where she’s proud to have fought for a better livelihood for her co-workers. “Of course I’m proud of my job. I’m a fast food worker, a freedom fighter.”
Photos © Alex Swerdloff.