Leslie Patton of Bloomberg News wins the January Sidney Award for a hard-hitting joint profile of a McDonald’s fry cook and the company’s CEO. This “Tale of Two McDonald’s” shows how the explosive growth of fast food has generated fat profits for executives and shareholders but left workers behind.
After 20 years on the job, Tyree Johnson earns just $8.25 an hour as a fry cook, minimum wage in Illinois. Johnson is lucky to scrape together 40 hours a week because neither of the two McDonald’s he works for will give him full-time hours. Johnson would have to work over a million hours to earn as much as the company’s last CEO, who took home $8.75 million last year.
Johnson lives in a single room occupancy hotel with a shared bathroom. He is forced to wash in a McDonald’s restroom at the end of one shift so he can head to a second shift at another McDonald’s located about a mile away.
“I hate when my boss tells me she won’t give me a raise because she can smell me,” he said.
Meanwhile, the CEO of McDonald’s, Don Thompson, who has roots near the Chicago housing project where Johnson grew up, and joined the company at about the same time, enjoys the use of a company plane and investment counseling as part of his compensation package.
“As a reporter who covers fast food, Patton showed great courage in telling such a hard-hitting story about one of the most powerful players on her beat,” said Sidney judge Lindsay Beyerstein.
The divisions within the fast food sector are a microcosm of our increasingly unequal economy. Last year, the incomes of the top 1 percent of households rose by 5.5 percent, while the incomes of the bottom 80 percent fell by nearly 2 percent.
Johnson is active in a movement to unionize fast food workers, but he doesn’t dare discuss organizing at work for fear of being fired.
Leslie Patton has worked for Bloomberg News for two-and-a-half years, mostly reporting on restaurants and other consumer companies. After receiving a BBA from the University of Michigan, she worked as a business analyst at Target Corp. for two years before going back to school. She earned an MSJ from Northwestern University in 2010.
- Your story is a tale of two McDonald’s: You profile a fry cook and the CEO of the company side-by-side. How did you decide on this format, and how does the structure advance the story?
The tale of two McDonald’s method is a vivid way to capture the growing disparity between front-line, low-wage workers and the people and companies that employ them. The fact that Thompson and Johnson both spent some of their childhood near Chicago’s Cabrini Green public-housing project underscores the differences in their opportunities and how their lives have turned out.
- Tyree Johnson, the fry cook, has been working for McDonald’s for 20 years and he’s still making $8.25 an hour. He seems like a model employee. Why hasn’t he risen higher in the company, and what does that say about McDonald’s approach to its workforce?
As the story notes, Johnson has been moved between several different McDonald’s stores in Chicago. Whenever he is transferred, his pay gets cut to minimum wage. McDonald’s said that the issues of hiring and pay are left up to their franchised store owners, who own and operate about 90 percent of all McDonald’s locations in the U.S.
- The fast food industry is booming. What does the growth of fast food have to do with the increase in economic inequality since the end of the recession?
During this economic recovery, fast food restaurants have added jobs more than twice as fast as the U.S. average and these positions are among the lowest-paid in the U.S. McDonald’s U.S. stores alone employ about 800,000 people. At the same time, the restaurant industry has lobbied to prevent minimum-wage increases.
- Johnson part of a movement to unionize fast food workers. How is McDonald’s dealing with the prospect of unionization?
McDonald’s has a history of sending in experienced managers and executives to stores where any union activity is suspected. Employers in general are doing more to keep workers from unionizing and organizing and the number of workers who get fired for trying to form a union has increased during the past 30 years. McDonald’s said it has no corporate policy on whether its workers are allowed to form unions.
- McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson declined to be interviewed for this story. Have you received any response from Thompson, or McDonalds since the story ran?
There’s been no response from McDonald’s or Thompson on the story.
- Your beat is fast food, and McDonald’s is one of the biggest companies on your beat. Were you nervous about writing such a hard-hitting story?
The story was an important one to tell both about my beat and more broadly about growing income inequality. And the story was a part of a Bloomberg series of stories that examined how the top earners in this country have gained more than in past economic recoveries as the rich-poor gap has widened.