When I was 17, it was a very good year. Except for those two days when I worked at Taco Bell.
You see, I was out of work, starting my second semester of college, and I needed money for registration, books, gas and insurance, and I had applications on file with about 30 restaurants trying to get my foot in the door as a busboy, so that I could wait tables as soon as I turned 18 -- the minimum age for serving alcohol at a dinner house.
I got that job a few weeks later, but in the interim, I decided to just take whatever was out there. The nearest mediocre, but easily attainable, job was at a Taco Bell that was two blocks from my house.
My first night, it was a three person crew -- the general manager, an assistant manager and me. Normally, I was told, there would be two closers -- me and either the general manager or an assistant manager. That meant we would be finishing up early my first night, because I was certainly speeding things up. There was little time lost training me. My instructions were along the lines of "Mike, go turn all the chairs upside down on the tables and mop the floor. Mike, go pick up all the trash in the parking lot. Mike, go carry all these containers back to the refrigerator. Mike, go sweep the floor." I was saving the crew at least half a minute of time for every minute they had me there.
At around 12:40 a.m., I heard the assistant manager ask the general manager what time it was. When she heard the answer, she replied, excitedly, "oh, we'll be out of here early tonight."
I sighed. 12:40 was early? What constituted late?
About twenty minutes later, it was time to clock out. Oddly, the timecards were in a spot from which you couldn't see the clock. As I grabbed my timecard and the attached-by-a-string pen, I was still out of the clock's sight line, so I asked what time it was. The general manager rushed over, as if in a panic. "Oh," he said, "just put down '6-C.' Whenever you work the closing shift, you put down '6-C'."
What? "But, how will they know how many hours to pay me?" I asked.
"Well," he replied, "when you close, they pay you until midnight. That gives you an incentive to work harder and get done sooner. If you're done before midnight, you still get paid the full six hours."
"Does that ever happen? Do people get out of here before midnight? Ever?"
"Um, I don't know. I never have."
I put down "6-C."
What was I to do? I'd been cheated out of $3.35. Who was going to care? I would get cheated out of $3.35 two or three times per week as long as I worked there. But even after being cheated 100 times, no lawyer was going to take my case. The newspaper wasn't going to pick up the story. Nobody was going to do anything for me. And I was certain that if I complained, I'd get fired. And I couldn't imagine a more embarrassing fate than to go home and tell my parents that I couldn't hold down a job at Taco Bell.
So I did the only honorable thing. As an at-will employee, I decided to work just enough hours to pay for the brown polyester pants they had made me buy, and then I was going to quit, on the spot. After my second shift (the early, 4-9 pm shift), I had earned, after taxes, enough to cover the cost of the pants, so after I confirmed the math that night, I decided that when I reported for my third shift, I would just turn in my uniform shirt at the start of the shift and go back home. When I did, they asked me why. I told them I didn't like to work for free, especially after midnight. The manager gave me a disapproving look like I was a lazy bum destined to someday become a beggar or a welfare cheat, but I didn't care. For $3.35 per hour, I didn't have enough cushion in my pay rate to justify donating time to the franchisee.
Fast forward about a dozen years. I'm now an attorney, several years out of law school and trained by a large and prestigious law firm in the dark art of employment defense work. I open the Daily Journal and read about a class action that has been filed on behalf of a large group of Taco Bell employees for, among other things, being forced to perform off-the-clock work.
And I remember having to put down "6-C." And I think about all those poor Taco Bell employees who aren't in college, destined to get an advanced degree, who aren't on the verge of landing a new job at a fancy dinner house that pays cash tips every night, the ones who have resigned themselves to getting cheated out of an hour of pay two or three times a week, because they don't think there is anything they can do about it. And I find my calling as a lawyer.
I'm now busy changing the world, one workplace at a time. It might take a while.