In 1984, I was hired as a cashier at Hardee’s in Columbia, S.C., making $4.25 an hour. By 2005, 21 years later, my pay was only at $8 an hour. That’s a $3.75 raise for a lifetime of work. Adjusted for inflation, it’s only a 2-cent raise.
Andrew Puzder, the chief executive since 2000 of CKE — which owns Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr., and other fast-food companies — is now in line to become the country’s next labor secretary. The headlines ponder what this may mean for working people in America, but I already know.
I already know what Trump/Puzder economics look like because I’m living it every day. Despite giving everything I had to Puzder’s company for 21 years, I left without a penny of savings, with no health care and no pension. Now, while I live in poverty, Trump, who promised to fix the rigged economy, has chosen for labor secretary someone who wants to rig it up even more. He’s chosen the chief executive of a company who recently made more than $10 million in a year, while I’m scraping by on Supplemental Security payments.
When I began at Hardee’s, I was hopeful. I liked the work and received a promotion to shift manager after only a month. But the pay remained low, and even with my husband’s salary as the head cook at Fort Jackson, we relied on food stamps and Medicaid. We were two full-time-employed adults; we shouldn’t have had to turn to the government, but we had kids to raise, and so we were left with no other choice.
Low pay wasn’t the only reason my family struggled: It was the lack of benefits and respect, too. I remember once my manager came to my house on a day off and demanded I go into work. I remember trudging through Hurricane Katrina to get to the store. I remember being denied a raise multiple times.
In 2005, I was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and had to stop working. After more than two decades at Hardee’s, I left without any savings, a 401(k), pension or health benefits. That’s Puzder’s America.
The cooks and cashiers at Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. are the reason Puzder can take home more than $10 million in a single year and live in a plush mansion with movie star neighbors — while his workers like me skip meals to pay our rent and are forced to live in homeless shelters.
We are their corporate strategy: Pay us as little as legally allowed, steal from our meager paychecks as needed and force us onto public assistance to get by. Sadly, that’s the America Trump and Puzder believe in: an America where workers give everything to an employer, and in return, receive nothing. Their America means that an older woman in retirement fighting a chronic illness has to rely on Supplemental Security Income to survive.
But the story doesn’t end with me. About four years ago, my son Terrence — who lives in Kansas City, Mo., and works for McDonald’s, became involved in the Fight for $15, the movement to raise minimum pay to $15 an hour and strengthen working Americans’ right to join a union. With Puzder’s nomination as labor secretary, it’s hard not to believe these next four years won’t find working Americans under attack. But Terrence and his colleagues in the Fight for $15 movement have filled me with a sense of hope I never would have thought possible when I left Hardee’s in 2005.
Puzder could do serious damage to this movement for basic justice. People who work full days shouldn’t have to rely on government assistance to get by; allowing companies like Puzder’s to pay poverty wages and meager benefits that force families to rely on food stamps and Medicaid is allowing rich people like him to live large while tax payers pick up the slack for their underpaid workers. Enough is enough: Puzder should not be confirmed as secretary of labor, and the crisis of American wages and health care shouldn’t be allowed to continue.