Anetria McDuffie

Siri Hedreen / The Outlook

Anetria McDuffie, 44, has been working at McDonald's since the summer after about a decade of manufacturing jobs and is already making $3.50 per hour more than what she was at Wellborn Cabinetry.

Anetria McDuffie wasn't even looking for a new job when she saw a "Now Hiring" sign at McDonald's advertising a $13-per-hour starting wage.

The fast-food restaurant had been her first job 20 years ago, but despite more than a decade in manufacturing, the Alexander City McDonald's was offering more than she made at Wellborn Cabinetry.

"You know, it caught my eye. Money will catch your eye. And I said, 'I did McDonald's, why not leave this scene and go to this scene,'" said McDuffie, who now, four months later, makes $15.50. "And I've been here ever since."

As of July, the Alex City and Dadeville McDonald's have been the subjects of experimentation, though in the employees' case, being a guinea pig just means you get paid more — first at $13-, then $14-an-hour starting wage, and $17 an hour for managers.

Bob Conneen, director of operations for the franchise which owns 17 restaurants in Alabama and Georgia, said they decided to pilot the pay increase in Alex City and Dadeville first.

"Historically, they've been a little bit tougher to staff, for whatever reason," he said.

But with 1.5 million job openings in accommodation and food services nationwide as of August, the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics (B.L.S.) data report, nearly all 17 restaurants were struggling to attract workers at $11 per hour.

"We've just found it really difficult to one, get enough people, but two, get enough quality people," he said. "This seems to be shifting that dynamic a little bit. The applicants are a better caliber and it's starting to show up in the restaurants.

"It's still kind of early analysis, but our early analysis is it's working."

For months now, a "Help Wanted" sign in every window has been the norm, and some restaurants, like Buck's BBQ, have had to cut their opening hours. The local McDonald's isn't the only employer to give in, offering more money. Earlier this week, Auburn University announced it lowest paid employees would now be making $14.50 per hour. According to the Atlanta Fed, hourly wages are rising at their fastest rate nationwide since the Great Recession. 

'Getting them in the door is only part of the battle'

To keep it a controlled experiment — and to mitigate risk — Conneen's 15 other McDonald's restaurants still start at $11 per hour. It took a few weeks to get the word out at the Tallapoosa County locations  — the Alex City signboard still says "NOW HIRING STARTING AT $14" —but eventually the number of applicants crept up.

As of mid-October, three months into the experiment, they're now within 10% of being fully staffed. Considering one in 15 American service industry workers quit their jobs in August alone according to the B.L.S., "that's really good right about now," Conneen said.

At the very least, they're retaining workers. McDuffie said she's seen an improvement just in the short time she's been there.

"We've got more people staying now," she said. "It's not people leaving; they're staying." 

With prices unchanged, however, the pay increase has unsurprisingly made a dent in the balance sheet.

"I wouldn't call it a loss," Conneen said. "I'd call it a significant financial impact — we're not making as much money as we were before. It's a significant impact to our financials so then it makes a lot of other things tight."

Some of those costs are temporary as the restaurant takes on new employees — the cost of training, and the fact that new hires tend to be less productive in the first few weeks. While it'll take six months to get a good read on the financials, Conneen said, the hope is those training costs will lessen by January. In the meantime, other fast-food restaurants could catch up, and Chik-Fil-A opening across U.S. Highway 280 within the next few months is known for its aggressive wages.

"We have to pay what it is to get people in the door," Conneen said. "And I see more competitors moving to that (higher) starting point as well."

On the other hand, "Getting them in the door is only part of the battle," he continued. "There's a massive emphasis on training them correctly and treating them properly. People tell me the money's not as important to me as how you treat me."

For McDuffie, the automotive plants were too impersonal; at every plant she worked at, employees were disciplined on a punitive seven-points-you're-out system for infractions like showing up two minutes late. And unlike her current job, pay increases were annual, not incremental, with little disparity between the good workers and the lousy.

"It's like you do all the work and everybody's getting paid the same thing as you," she said. "And you'd be dragging at some of these jobs; you'd be pulling all the weight."

Meanwhile, the schedule was inflexible and the hours were grueling. Depending on demand and the job at hand, McDuffie could find herself working 60 hours per week.

"They change it up all the time (and) you got to finish 'the number.' You got to stay 'til it's done," she said. "It just seems like the plants, it was more rules and control."

'I just don't see a wholesale flood back of service workers'

While McDonald's' $14 wage has attracted workers, it's unclear to what extent it's drawn people out of unemployment. Conneen's guess is most of them, like McDuffie, were poached from other factory, retail or fast-food jobs, attracted by better pay or a better fit.

But those who abandoned accommodation and food services — the industry that's seen the highest exodus this year — have yet to return, and Conneen doesn't think any wage will bring them back.

"I just don't see a wholesale flood back of service workers," he said. With COVID-19 unemployment benefits now cut off, "I think they're kind of looking around, saying 'what's my next move; do I want to go back to service; do I want to go back to school and try something new.'"

Knowing the bad rap the service industry is getting right now, when McDuffie gave her two weeks' notice at Wellborn, her managers tried to talk her out of it. "They're like, 'People want their food; they want it now!'" she said.

It was the pay premium at McDonald's that caught her eye, but now, McDuffie says she wouldn't go back to Wellborn if they offered $20 an hour.

"I don't think I would," she said. "I'm so tired of the plants. I like McDonald's."

Recommended for you