Jimmy Johns

Notes from a Jimmy John’s Worker (Part 1)


This is the first in our three part series on work at Jimmy John’s.  Continue with Parts Two and Three.

I have decided to style my account according to the way a typical day goes at my store as it is the easiest and plainest way to make others understand what it is like. At 4 am our General Manager wakes up, leaves his two infant daughters and wife asleep in their beds and gets ready for work. Mr. GM informed me a couple of weeks ago that his apartment complex has a bed-bug infestation, and that when he complained to the management they ignored him. In a complex just a few blocks from his, electricity was shut off for days last month before the City informed the residents that “they should seek housing elsewhere,” the outage being due to the landlord’s refusal to pay the electric bill. So our GM leaves his family in their semi-dilapidated apartment and drives to another day of his salaried sixty-hour workweek, which begins at 6:30am and lasts until 4 or 5PM.

When he arrives at Jimmy John’s at the crack of dawn, he turns up the radio to keep up his spirits and sets to work slicing the tomatoes and lettuce, mixing the tuna, setting out the meats, vegetables and condiments on the cold-tables, slicing other meats, baking the bread and going over paperwork to get the store ready.

Around 8 or 9, another worker comes in to give a helping hand. This worker makes minimum wage and likely gets only around 20 or 30 hours a week, but of course it varies wildly. Perhaps they only get 6 hours a week. But no matter what, no worker ever gets more than 40 hours; that is avoided like the plague, it is expressly forbidden.

The dire situation that would result from such a thing would be that the worker would be paid time-and-a-half, an unacceptable deviation of the principle: work as hard as possible, as fast as possible, send as much money as possible to the owners, and you yourself take the absolute minimum, the actual legal minimum, and then go away as soon as possible. We workers of course do not receive any benefits. There is the state-mandated Workers’ Comp, which is a ridiculously tiny payment for life-altering maiming like losing an entire foot or arm. This is a “benefit” — not from the company, but from the state.

From the moment the worker clocks in, often before, a frantic pace is set. When walking from the back office into the kitchen area, each employee sees a sign which reminds us that “Speed fixes lots of errors.” The worker is setting out the trash cans, sweeping and mopping, slicing the wheat bread, rushing bread from the oven to the racks, and everything else. If time allows for it, the worker finishes opening just as a second worker arrives and the GM takes a break to enjoy a free meal. If not, then so be it, and the duo or trio keep on working through the morning.

Although the store officially opens at 11 am, often the doors are unlocked as early as 10:30. When the first customer comes in they are greeted by the workers with a resounding “Hello!” who simultaneously rush to the register and “the line” to serve the customer as quickly as possible. The official rule is that each sandwich should achieve “perfection, every time” (this rule is on the same sign as the rule about speed. Thus we must be absolutely fast and absolutely perfect).

One worker rings up the customer while others, hands whizzing over the cutting boards and knives set on the surface as quickly as they are picked up, produces the sandwich from muscle-memory. If the customer wishes to tip the workers for their speed, accuracy and kind service, they can do so — and the money will go directly into profits, a repulsive deception of the customer and a particularly obvious manner of exploitation. The sole exception, besides deliveries, is with the occasional catering pick-up who tips.

By noon, there is a steady stream of customers and another few workers have come in. We usually have six people at this time. Three for the assembly line, one for the register, and two delivery drivers. If there is a catering order, the workers’ attention is divided between in-shop customers, delivery orders, and catering. The pace is again increased to a dizzying pace, difficult for even the most experienced workers to keep up with, and often resulting in errors and injuries. The music — company policy states that we may only listen to classic rock — echoes through the store, babies cry, customers shout and laugh, and the workers struggle to hear the customers’ orders over the babble and din.

The rule is that the register worker must repeat the customers’ orders to the line, but this often does not happen as that worker is assaulted by a million distractions: the customer wishes to change their order; giving correct change; ensuring the correct amount is charged to the customer’s card; not forgetting the list of instructions for various other tasks around the store the boss has given that worker; etc. What this means is that the production of the sandwich is delayed or messed up, further slowing production by forcing a re-make of the sandwich or even laying the workers idle while the register person races to correctly complete the order.

Workers duck, dodge, and shimmy around each other as they frenetically try to keep up with the pace of work. Just today my GM and I knocked our heads together while both leaning down to get an ingredient out from under the cold table, neither of us having the luxury of even looking up before so doing. Cuts are common, as are burns. After pulling the bread pan out of the oven with mits, the worker is expected to bang on the bottom of the tray — while walking behind frantic coworkers to the racks — in order to keep the rolls from collapsing. It is unusual if a worker does not have a recent burn or cut.

We must answer the phone before it rings a fourth time. We pick up, say “Jimmy John’s, we deliver!” and then jot down the customer’s order with pen and paper. The most commonly heard phrase from customers — and every service industry worker can tell you the tendential quirks of customers — is “I order from here all the time.” They usually say this right after we ask for their name, but sometimes they say it, with a rather sultry tone, after we ask for their address. “Ugh!,” they whine, “We order from here all the time. I kind of expected you to know us.”

What they either do not understand or do not care about is, first of all, the incredible turn-over rate at Jimmy Johns, where most workers come and go within the space of a year and very few ever make it more than 2 or 3 years before leaving. Secondly, is the fact that we operate on a paper system and do not have an archive of customers like, say, Domino’s. This, despite the fact that the previous franchisee had actually planned to have a computer system installed — a plan apparently abandoned by our new owners.

The order is made by panicking sandwich-makers and the driver rushes out the door, checking the order before flight to ensure it is correct. A driver might take one or two, or three or four or five of these orders at a time, driving all around the city and collecting tips. These workers do not receive a gas allowance or anything like that, and so while they make more in tips than the in-shopper does in wages, the added pay is lost again on the added cost: gas, insurance, repairs, etc. These workers drive used cars in varying states of disrepair; or, if they have middle class parents, perhaps they drive a new car paid for by the folks — but in any event the vehicle receives a lot of abuse in the course of deliveries.

Continue with Part Two.


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