By Jay Kirell
The door swings open. Tiny bells jingle. An early-morning commuter, trying to beat the rush on the Long Island Expressway into Manhattan, has stopped in for his usual medium cup of Brazilian dark roast coffee.
“Good-esh morning, my Chief, how are you? Welcome to 7-Eleven.”
Behind the counter, a bald man hunches over, resting his arms on either side of the cash register. He watches the customer fill up his disposable orange cup, add a spritz of milk and some sugar. As he places the lid on his cup, the bald man enters the customer’s coffee, adds on a bagel with butter, and a bottled water into the register. The customer walks around the counter, stops at the large wall of drinks and grabs a 20-oz Poland Spring before picking up a buttered cinnamon raisin bagel. Placing his items on the counter, the customer looks at the bald man and points to the cigarette case behind him.
“Pack of Marlboro Lights.”
The bald man pulls a pack from behind the register. He had grabbed it while the customer was still getting out of his car.
“And a book of –”
The bald man places a book of matches on top of the pack of cigarettes before the customer can finish.
“You know me so well, Chief,” the customer smiles.
“Have a great day, boss,” the bald man replies, his eyes already focused on the headlights of the multiple cars now filling up the parking lot as the morning commute rush begins. Frantically, he places his hands over the two dozen or so pots of coffee of varying flavors, checking the heat levels. He’s been doing this for the past five hours.
Hot coffee is the main concern of management at this particular 7-Eleven. The pots of coffee must always be full, and they must always be fresh. Customers will complain if they’re not. So the bald man spends hours every morning, practically creating a trench in the floor as he darts back and forth from the coffee counter to the cash register, trying to stay one step ahead of the rapidly draining pots.
“Ah, I’m tired Chief,” he says to one customer who notices him bent over at the waist, hands on his knees, after zipping through the store carrying 25-lbs of fresh coffee in each arm.
“I’m so tired.”
It’s now 4:00 A.M. There are still five hours until his shift ends.
The bald man’s name is Imam. A former Northern Alliance fighter, Imam spent the 1980’s fighting the Russians in the mountains of Northern Afghanistan. In 1996 he left home to come to the United States in search of a better life. Not able to make it through the traditional immigration route, Imam came into the country through Mexico.
Within a year of arriving in the U.S. – Imam found out how difficult life can be for immigrants. The person who assisted him in getting into the country ended up stealing all the money he had saved up to that point – about $8,000. His first two years in the States he worked odd jobs while he struggled to learn English. Eventually Imam made his way to New York, where he sold food from a cart on the sidewalk. He said the money was good, but he kept facing harassment from the NYPD, who would receive complaints from places like Starbucks and constantly make him move locations. The inconvenience and daily headaches were enough to make him look for more stable work.
Eventually he would find it in the form of a convenience store. Like many recent immigrants, Imam settled into an overnight position at 7-Eleven. The pay was lousy, but the hours were consistent and the person who owned the store seemed to like him.
In fact, the owner of the store took such a liking to Imam he actually helped him with his immigration case and a few years ago Imam became a full-fledged American citizen.
If you knew nothing else, Imam’s tale would seem to have all the makings of the perfect “Only-In-America” story.
Now in his 16th year at the store, Imam is far and away the most experienced employee. There isn’t anything that could possibly happen inside one of these convenience stores that he hasn’t seen and lived through. Armed robbery? He’s been held up almost a half dozen times. Power outages? He once slept on the floor of the store after Hurricane Sandy knocked out power. Drunk and disorderly customers? You haven’t lived until you’ve watched someone get cursed out in eight languages.
No, Imam’s problem is one unique to America in the 21st century. After 16 years on the job, with an annual raise of a whopping 25 cents, Imam is now making approximately $16 an hour. That figure is about 40% more than what anyone else in the store makes and more than double what I started at.
And now, after 16 years, Imam’s hours are being cut. Originally he was working 40 hours a week at my store, in addition to the 20 hours he would do at the owner’s other 7-Eleven.
So all together he was working over 60 hours a week, which allowed him to provide for his wife, three kids (including a newborn); mother-in-law, father-in-law and other relatives who share his two-bedroom apartment.
Working 60 hours a week at more than double minimum wage is pretty much the only way someone who works at a 7-Eleven would be able to afford rent on Long Island, the most expensive suburban area in the nation.
With the cut in hours, Imam tells me he has no choice but to look for other employment. And soon.
“I can’t do this, Chiefy,” he said to me.
He calls everyone “Chief,” but those he really likes get the “y” added on at the end.
“You see this,” he pulls out his cell phone and opens his banking app to show me his balance. I didn’t need to see the actual number, the fact that the numbers were in red told me everything.
60 hours a week, seven days a week, back and forth between two stores and he couldn’t save a nickel if he tried.
What does it say about America today that someone can bust their ass for an employer for almost 20 years, work their way up the pay scale at a comically-gradual pace, and then finally reach the point in their life where a job at 7-Eleven actually pays the bills – only to have everything they worked for yanked out from under them because they had the temerity to actually have a living wage?
It means loyalty doesn’t exist in the corporate world. It means certain jobs will never enable a person to live comfortably, even if that person does everything right and is the model employee. It means you’re probably better off bouncing around from job to job rather than staying at one place for years.
Ultimately, even if your boss likes you and likes the job you’re doing, it doesn’t really matter. If you stay on the job too long you’ll eventually just price yourself out of it. Just like the Chief.
People oppose minimum wage increases because they say it’ll hurt small businesses. They say minimum wage jobs are mostly temporary. They say only teenagers do the sort of work that minimum wage jobs pay.
But here’s the case of man who has worked tirelessly for over a decade at the same store. Since 2004 he’s taken off exactly 10 days from work – all for the birth of his children. He’s earned the trust of those who employed him over the years and the respect and admiration of the dozens, if not hundreds, of long-time regular customers. The type of customers who keep a small business like a 7-Eleven afloat through both good and bad economic climates.
The average fiscal conservative who only looks at the bottom line might conclude paying someone $16 an hour is a waste of payroll when you can get some kid out of high school to do the same work for half. But when those regular customers stop coming in so regularly because their coffee isn’t fresh, or the lines are too long, or their particular idiosyncratic breakfast routine is altered – what is the small business gaining in the long run? Fewer customers and less-experienced, less-dedicated employees.
Look, working at 7-Eleven might not be the most mentally-stimulating job in the world. It might not be part of the purpose-driven life we all strive for where we feel we’re making some small difference in the world. But it is not, by any means, an easy job for someone who does it for eight to ten hours a day, five or six days a week. Especially not someone approaching the age of 60.
To be able to show up, night after night, with no fanfare, taking abuse from drunken customers, or racist customers (you don’t want to know what he and other 7-Eleven employees across the country had to deal with immediately after 911) for the privilege of the opportunity to build a better life in this country shows a dedication the average pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-Republican would admire.
But it’s a dedication you can’t replace at $7.50 an hour. It’s a dedication earned over time. It’s a dedication worth the extra money spent on payroll.
Hail to the chief, indeed. He’s earned it.