A stint working in food service taught her workers deserve compensation, respect

·3 min read

If you’ve had food-service jobs, you probably aren’t surprised to hear that people are quitting them due to poor working conditions, abuse from patrons and low pay.

Minimum wage in 1974 Tulsa was $2 an hour. To get a job, you had to pass a Tulsa County Health Department class. Some of the material: wearing hair nets, disinfecting tables between patrons, not coming to work sick, washing glassware in hot enough water and filing for Social Security.

We seven sisters attended Catholic schools in plaid skirts and knee socks, so weren’t fluent in fashion, let’s say. Until I got old enough to know the difference between Levi’s and house brand jeans available for less at JCPenney, I was oblivious.

We had hand-me-downs, but that old adage, beggars can’t be choosers, is incorrect. We wanted bell-bottoms, halter tops, maxis and tunics that Mom tried to afford. Now that I’ve been a parent for more than 30 years, it haunts me how we must have driven our parents crazy over clothes. I finally realized I needed to make more than babysitting money if I wanted to feel cool in my new public school.

On my 16th birthday, I bundled up and walked to the corner where pizza joint and a burger joint shared a parking lot, with Ray’s Hamburger stand tucked in the back.

I went into the the restaurant and asked to see the manager, but he was on a break. Over at the pizza joint, the manager, Wayne, invited me to sit at the little bar by the cash register, poured me a Coke and interviewed me.

He was probably all of 26. He hired me on the spot and I started that Saturday night. By my second paycheck, I figured out that the pizza place wasn’t paying me: the customers were. By law, I was told, we had to report our tips to the manager at the end of our shift, and they were then deducted from our paychecks.

I was outraged and wrote a letter to the editor. My dad, however, had a different plan. He showed up one night after dinner rush, sat at the little bar and ordered a Coke for 35 cents.

I served him his drink, he slid over two quarters, and I gave him everything in my pocket as his change. At the end of that night, when I laid out my measly take, Wayne was impressed. He said he may get fired, but that I had the coolest dad ever. He said he was sick of the policy and felt bad enforcing it. He didn’t get fired for that.

He got fired for smoking pot and playing the jukebox at full volume with quarters from the register after we locked the doors while cleaning up.

If things were slow, we called Ray and traded a pizza for a box of hot burgers in soft buns and crispy fries. One night, an Oral Roberts basketball player got drunk on 3.2 beer and drove into the window, thinking he was in reverse. The first day it was circulated, a stack of Susan B. Anthony dollar coins were left on a table of lunching bankers, who gleefully watched me collect them as I realized they weren’t quarters.

But times have changed and these jobs are not filled with just teenagers buffing up wardrobes. Adults supporting families shouldn’t be insulted or bullied at work. It’s fun for me to reminisce, but it was hard work, and I support food service employees calling for decent compensation and respect from both management and the public.

Reach Ellen at murphysister04@gmail.com

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