80-hour weeks, a slashed thumb, and the working life at Old Country Buffet

Hourly workers rallied July 15 in downtown Minneapolis for better wages, schedules, and sick pay.

Hourly workers rallied July 15 in downtown Minneapolis for better wages, schedules, and sick pay.

Nobody goes into fast food service to get rich. But livable wages and being treated like a human would be nice, Rod Adams says.

One day the former fast food worker was slicing sausages at a Roseville Old Country Buffet. Adams, 26, fancies himself handy with a knife, but admittedly he was off his game. Between readying sneeze-guarded feeding troughs and his other job at Chipotle, he was working 70-80 hours a week to pay the bills. It was physically and emotionally draining.

As Adams cut into tube meat for the all-you-can-eat value sect, he became distracted. The knife strayed into his thumb. Unfortunately, the good sets of “cut gloves” were often MIA, so he was stuck with a flimsier mesh pair that was no match for the knife. The blade passed through his thumb, severing a portion of the bloody digit’s tip.

“You know when you get a deep cut, it burns?” the Minneapolis man recalls. “I barely could feel my finger.”

His boss asked if he could continue hacking — the sausages, that is. “No, my finger’s cut wide open,” Adams replied. But with buffet-hungry mouths to feed, Adams was told to keep slicing.

“He gave me some gauze and a Band-Aid, I put that on and got right back to work,” Adams remembers.

Eventually, he made it to a doctor, who told him he had nerve damage and shouldn’t work with his hands for at least two or three days. But that wouldn’t buy Adams much sympathy from his Ol' Country bosses. According to Adams, he was told he might be out of a job if he didn’t show up the next day. Plus, unpaid days off equal leaner paychecks, which made paying rent on time iffy. So despite the doctor's orders, he kept punching the clock.

Last week Adams took part in a Minneapolis protest led by a coalition of groups, including Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), pushing for paid sick time and fair scheduling practices for hourly workers. According to a recent NOC survey conducted in north Minneapolis, one in three hourly workers reported being disciplined or facing negative consequences for calling in sick. With the vast majority of food service employees not receiving paid sick days, 70 percent admitted coming in under the weather.

Beyond working wounded, Adams had trouble maintaining a manageable schedule. Despite informing his bosses of his availability, the college student making $8.45 an hour was often scheduled to work when he was supposed to be in class. At the Minneapolis Chipotle where he worked, the weekly schedule came out Friday, with hours starting two days later. Oftentimes he cut class to avoid missing work and risk getting canned.

Congressional Democrats recently unveiled a bill that would make short-notice scheduling illegal. The Schedules That Work Act would require employers to give out schedules two weeks in advance and allow workers to request changes “without fear of retaliation,” the Hill reports.

While Adams is no longer wrapping burritos or stocking buffet bins, he recently got an associate’s degree from Minneapolis Community and Technical College and plans to study political science at Augsburg University — a goal he says was delayed by his chaotic work schedules.

“They don’t understand that people are real people. They’re not productivity numbers,” he says.

Send news tips to Michael Rietmulder.