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This chicken sandwich, we’re right to pay attention to what exhausted, underpaid Popeyes’ employees are going through


A chicken sandwich sits on a table at a Popeyes as guests wait in line, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019, in Kyle, Texas. After Popeyes added a crispy chicken sandwich to their fast-fast menu, the hierarchy of chicken sandwiches in America was rattled, and the supremacy of Chick-fil-A and others was threatened. It’s been a trending topic on social media, fans have weighed in with YouTube analyses and memes, and some have reported long lines just to get a taste of the new sandwich. (Eric Gay/AP)

All the rage over the Popeye’s chicken sandwich gave me flashbacks to Oct. 7, 2017 — aka Szechuan Sauce Day. At the time, I was working at a McDonald’s in downtown San Francisco as research for my book, “On the Clock,” for which I also worked in an Amazon warehouse and a giant call center to document the daily experience of modern low-wage work.

The specifics of Szechuan Sauce Day are too stupid to go into detail about; I’ll just say it was a one-day-only event involving a promotional tie-in dipping sauce from the original 1998 “Mulan” and the cartoon “Rick and Morty.” It was an extremely big deal online, though, so when it came around, McDonald’s franchises all over the place got slammed.

Those of us manning the place were extremely miserable, and we didn’t even have the stupid sauce. The lines that were already constant due to algorithm-determined understaffing got insane, and customers got angry at the wait. I got yelled at by several people, cut my finger open on a broken coffeepot, and still stayed an hour and a half after my shift to help my coworkers.

But we got off pretty easy; the worst behavior I witnessed was when a woman chucked a handful of sugar packets at a coworker.

Other locations were less lucky. Police were called to multiple locations. Lines at many McDonald’s were around the block, and rowdy. Video from a store in nearby San Jose showed an elbow-to-elbow mob of customers shouting “Give us the sauce! Give us the sauce!” and laughing as exhausted-looking workers tried to do their jobs.

The video was usually treated as an “Isn’t This Weird?” story, but after actually living through it, I found it pretty horrifying. Almost nobody bothered to consider the perspective of workers. The blithe lack of curiosity of the mainstream media made me furious it was as if the miserable experience of 200,000-odd employees was less interesting than the travails of a woman who’d had the time and money to drive six hours from Canada for a promotional dipping sauce.

The chicken sandwich situation sounds way more miserable than what I lived through. According to Popeye’s workers, it takes about 10 minutes to make each sandwich, which is ludicrously time-intensive in the frantic world of fast food.

But in less than two years, the zeitgeist seems to have really changed.

This time, most general coverage at least mentions how stressful and miserable this all has been for Popeye’s workers, and that many make about $9 an hour. The big meme of the moment wasn’t about the sandwich — it was a photo of a drained-looking employee slumped outside on her break. And, unlike Szechuan Sauce Day, several pieces at mainstream publications like Vox, USA Today and the Miami Herald focused on how this looked from the other side of the counter.

Business Insider interviewed multiple workers for a piece headlined “'I was working like a slave': Exhausted Popeyes employees describe a harrowing situation amid chicken-sandwich chaos, including working 60-hour weeks and shifts with no breaks.”

One quote from a worker — “the added demand increased the amount of work tenfold, while I still get paid next to nothing” — differs only in conciseness from “With orders exploding at locations nationwide, Popeyes’ employees are working harder under more grueling conditions and few benefits while corporate shareholders bask Scrooge McDuck–style in their riches,” a quote from an op-ed in the radical-left Jacobin magazine titled “A Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich Under Socialism.”

I hope this is a sign that the media have finally turned a corner about what’s deserving of coverage — and that there’s some recognition that the modern working class is not some sepia-tinted photograph of Midwestern guys in factories or steel mills. Today’s working class works at Chick-fil-A, or an Amazon warehouse, or a call center. Recognizing their experiences as newsworthy is crucial if we want to regain credibility with the many Americans on the other side of the counter.

Guendelsberger is a journalist and author of “On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane.”