Nation & World

Updates have some McDonald's workers jumping ship

One result is longer waiting times for customers

Bloomberg

An employee packs an order for a customer at a McDonald’s restaurant in Phoenix.
Bloomberg An employee packs an order for a customer at a McDonald’s restaurant in Phoenix.

For Dudley Dickerson, the mobile-app orders were the last straw.

McDonald’s has been updating with new technology, delivery, a revamped menu and curbside pickup. But the chain’s Experience of the Future theme has employees handling more tasks — in many cases, they say, without pay raises or adequate staffing. So Dickerson handed over his spatula for the last time.

“They added a lot of complicated things,” Dickerson said in an interview. “It makes it harder for the workers.”

Many fast-food employees hop from job to job. But with unemployment so low, turnover is becoming a problem.

Workers are walking rather than dealing with new technologies and menu options. The result — customers will wait longer. Drive-through times at McDonald’s slowed to 239 seconds last year — more than 30 seconds slower than in 2016, according to QSR magazine.

It’s also pokier than Burger King, Wendy’s and Taco Bell.

Turnover at U.S. fast-food restaurants jumped to 150 percent — meaning a store employing 20 workers would go through 30 in one year. That figure is the highest since industry tracker People Report began collecting data in 1995.

“Quick-service restaurants are having a little more trouble with job openings and finding workers,” said Michael Harms, executive director of operations at People Report. “It’s the pace of work, the pace of technology and the lower wage rate.”

McDonald’s and its franchisees haven’t seen an increase in crew turnover over the past year, nor is there a correlation between the new initiatives and turnover, spokeswoman Terri Hickey said in an emailed statement.

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“Together with our owner-operators, we are investing in all necessary training to ensure successful implementation of any changes in our restaurants,” she wrote. “Just as Experience of the Future modernizes the restaurant experience for our customers, there is also a focus on improving the work experience for restaurant employees.”

McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook has been pushing initiatives that have helped turn around comparable sales, which rose 3.6 percent last year in the United States. But they’ve also made it tougher to retain restaurant employees in an already tight labor market.

“The ball is really in the court of the workers,” Harms said. “Not the employers.”

Last year, McDonald’s said, it employed 235,000 people, including corporate and restaurant workers. Each of those people generated $97,000 in revenue, compared to about $65,000 the year before.

While this could be a sign of increased efficiency, it also could be seen as stretching thin an inadequate number of employees.

In Broward County, Fla., Westley Williams said he’s moving from McDonald’s to burger joint Checkers because of mobile-app orders, new items and six new self-order kiosks.

“It’s more stressful now,” said Williams, noting he didn’t get a raise for doing more work. “When we mess up a little bit because we’re getting used to something new, we get yelled at.”

On a recent afternoon, about 10 McDonald’s workers hustled behind the counter of a store in Chicago’s Loop. They called out order numbers for those waiting for lunch — some had ordered via an in-store kiosk, some from the mobile app and some the old-fashioned way, at the register.

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An order of a Bacon McDouble, small fries and an apple juice took about two and a half minutes, faster than the average drive-through time. But the drink was missing and the employee seemed confused when asked for it.

“The biggest risk when you have a lot of employee turnover is the customer experience,” said Brian Yarbrough, an analyst for Edward Jones. “If that starts to wane, then this turns into a bigger problem.”

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