Charles Thornton worries for the future of minimum wage. He lives its present.

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Charles Thornton knows his support for a $15 minimum wage could get him in trouble with Wendy's. It's worth it.

The rich man suffers from tennis elbow. The middle-class office worker complains of carpal tunnel. After seven years running the grill at Wendy’s, and one doctor visit, Charles Thornton is ready to self-diagnose.

“I’ve got ‘hamburger elbow,’” he says, rubbing the back of his left arm. He points at a journalist’s notebook. “Write it down.”

Thornton works the 5 p.m.–1:30 a.m. shift four nights a week at a north Minneapolis Wendy’s. Placing his hands out in front of him like a mime, Thornton imagines a wide, sizzling griddle, and estimates he’ll make five or six hundred burgers during a “rush hour.”

One starts the moment he clocks in, 5 o’clock. Another hits at 8. Then, around 11, “the whole city” arrives, a hungry, booze-breathed line forming out into the parking lot.

Thornton used to chow down on Wendy’s when he lived in Chicago, and the burger he liked sold for a buck.

“Now that same burger is $2.39,” he says, shaking his head, chuckling.

But Thornton’s salary hasn’t increased at the same rate. After hiring him at $7.50 an hour in 2009, Wendy’s waited a couple years before kicking in another 50 cents. A year later his rate ticked up to $8.15. His last couple raises — to $9 an hour in 2015, and $9.50 at the start of last month — have been mandatory under the state’s minimum wage law.

It’s still too low for Thornton, who’s backing the election referendum for a $15 minimum in the city of Minneapolis. The city council balked at the idea, and city attorney Susan Segal blocked it from the ballot. Last week, a county judge ruled in favor of labor organizers, saying the wage hike question should be on the ballot in November. The city has appealed, taking the referendum fight to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

That’s all playing out at some remove from Thornton’s modest living room in north Minneapolis. He says he couldn’t afford his small apartment were it not for his fiancée, Mary, who works as a personal care attendant.

Thornton, 60, grew up on the south side of Chicago, son of an electrician, a union man. Mom stayed home raising eight kids. Some nights she skipped meals.

He’s been working all his life, starting with a paper route — “7.50 a week,” good for “a lot of candy” — as a boy. After high school, he worked at a hospital, earning $3.65 an hour in food service. After a dozen years, the hospital closed in 1984. Thornton bounced around, working as a mailman, and later for the city parks department. He got divorced. Ran into credit card debt. Declared bankruptcy.

Around 2009, Thornton determined the south side of Chicago had “a lot of people and no jobs,” so he moved to Minneapolis, staying with a brother who lived here. Charles got a job at Wendy’s, and has been grilling ever since, watching supervisors count stacks of cash as he takes out the garbage at the end of each shift.

“I understand that it’s a business,” Thornton says.

He’s wrong. Wendy’s isn’t just a business. It’s a globally advertised corporate stock. Each quarter, Wendy’s CEO Todd Penegor holds a conference call to take questions from investment hawks at places like Goldman Sachs. Back in May, Penegor explained a temporary dip in demand, saying of Wendy’s consumers, “There has been little or no wage growth.”

No shit, Todd. Charles could’ve told you that.

That’s not true for everyone: Emil Brolick, the outgoing Wendy’s CEO whose place Penegor took this spring, made a total of $8.3 million in 2015, up 13 percent from the year before. The vast majority of Brolick’s haul came through stock options and bonuses awarded by a “compensation committee,” which praised Brolick for Wendy’s 15 percent profit margin.

What’s Thornton’s operating margin? Every couple weeks, he stands in line to collect a $525 check. After rent, groceries, car and renter’s insurance, electric, child support for his three kids, minutes on his cell phone, copayments on blood pressure medication, the odd gift for his grandkids... what’s left?

Charles crooks his thumb to his fingers, forming a circle; lifts it up, stares out through it. Zero. Thornton’s margin is as thin as the square patties he turns by the hundred.

If you vote in Minneapolis, consider yourself a member of his compensation committee.

A couple weeks ago, Thornton got a letter from Wendy’s reminding him he was approaching the company’s mandatory retirement age of 65.

That’s the same year, 2020, the $15 minimum would take effect if the ballot measure passes. With a personal retirement nest egg of $1,100, he figures he’ll punch the clock at least that long.

Charles hopes to retire with “a little bit of health” left, maybe enjoy a few restful years. He hasn’t had a vacation since moving to Minneapolis.

And he knows his role as a spokesman for workers could jeopardize his job at Wendy’s. It’s worth it.

Complain about low wages, Thornton says, and people will tell you “something’s better than nothing.” It is, but just barely.

“I tell my kids, ‘You’ve gotta have more than just a little something,’” Thornton says. “If you settle for a little something, then a little something’s all you’ll have.”

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