McDonald’s HQ Is a Perfect Symbol of America’s Class Divide

Housed within McDonald’s Chicago HQ are both white-collar workers upstairs, enjoying a relaxed work environment and decent compensation — and restaurant workers downstairs, making the company’s profits but facing unsafe work environments and low wages.

The entrance to the McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago, Illinois. (Don Sniegowski / Flickr)

“Upstairs-downstairs” is a term frequently used to describe the social dynamics of period costume dramas like HBO’s new series The Gilded Age. It’s shorthand for the vertical architecture of the class divide between the aristocracy of the Victorian era and their servants. The former was aloft in its lavish mansions while their maids, valets, chauffeurs, cooks, and housekeepers dwelled in subterranean quarters. Quite literally, the rich were on top of the working class under the same roof.

Today, service workers don’t shack up with the aristocracy quite as much — they’re summoned with the chimes of smartphone apps rather than butlers’ bells. But the “upstairs-downstairs” arrangements of old aren’t totally extinct. At McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Chicago, there’s a clear altitudinal divide between the professional-managerial class on top and the frontline workers who serve McDonald’s products on the ground floor.

In 2018, the fast-food giant shifted its base of operations from a leafy eighty-six-acre campus in suburban Oak Brook to a 500,000-square-foot complex inside a newly constructed nine-story office building in Chicago’s West Loop, a once-gritty industrial neighborhood that has now been taken over by upscale restaurants, luxury condos, and shiny new developments. The move downtown to the former site of Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios was part of McDonald’s plan to “build a modern, progressive burger company,” a muddled phrase that’s code for attracting well-educated urbanites to help sell more Big Macs.

At McDonald’s HQ, there’s no Ronald McDonald–inspired aesthetics to be found. The interior is sleek, spacious, and full of mid-century-style furniture, with minimalistic light fixtures hanging overhead — like you’re in an airport terminal.

Take the elevator up far enough, and you reach a kind of adult Playplace. There’s a fitness center and a cash bar featuring Thursday night happy hours. This bar was the spot where former CEO Steve Easterbrook ​​reportedly partied hard with coworkers and tried to seduce women.  Easterbrook was fired in 2019 for his secret affairs with colleagues and sending unsolicited nude photos to them, but he left with $100 million in compensation — enough to buy about 25 million Happy Meals. (He was eventually forced to give the money back.)

During the workday, corporate employees get their choice of workspace: individual desks, communal tables, or “huddle rooms,” plus personal lockers and private phone rooms. Need some fresh air? There are four outdoor spaces, outfitted with Wi-Fi, including a rooftop garden with a stellar view of the city skyline. The garden even features three beehives and produces honey for tea offered in the office cafes.

In addition to those amenities, corporate employees enjoy three weeks’ paid vacation, health care benefits, an eight-week paid sabbatical after a decade of service, and Friday afternoons off in the summer, to, say, beat the long line for the $19 gourmet burgers down the street at Au Cheval.

This past summer, these facilities went unused due to fears of COVID-19. Concerns about the Delta variant delayed reopening of the corporate headquarters until October — and even now, office employees are allowed two days of working from home.

A Two-Tiered System

There’s a different set of rules for those who toil on the first floor, a 6,000-square-foot flagship restaurant. This “McDonald’s Experience of the Future” has an updated aesthetic — a red-tinted translucent glass door slides open to allow you in, for instance. But it operates like the rest of the low-wage service industry of the present.

The cooks and cashiers at the Chicago HQ earn $15 an hour, but that’s due to the city’s municipal minimum wage law — not corporate generosity. Among the 900,000-plus people employed in McDonald’s restaurants nationwide, the average crew member’s hourly pay is approximately $9.89, according to But even at $15 an hour, the rank and file make significantly less than the $63,000 average for corporate office employees, and a fraction of the $18 million that current CEO Chris Kempczinski earns annually (nearly two thousand times as much as restaurant employees make, according to Business Insider).

In 2015, McDonalds started giving its restaurant workers’ up to five days of paid time off once they’ve been with the company for a year. But as of five years later, roughly 517,000 McDonald’s workers didn’t have paid sick leave, the New York Times reported, because of a loophole: roughly 93 percent of the company’s 38,000 restaurant locations are owned and operated by independent franchisees, who can set their own employee benefits. Likewise, maternity leave for most workers is unpaid — which is why my nephew’s girlfriend went back to work at an Illinois McDonald’s a week and a half after having a baby. She couldn’t afford not to return to work.

While their corporate colleagues safely Zoomed their way through the pandemic, restaurant workers had to show up every day and bear the brunt of the pandemic’s risk — often without proper safety precautions. McDonald’s was among the fast-food chains who racked up thousands of OSHA complaints due to a lack of masks and inability to social distance.

In Oakland, a McDonald’s franchise was forced to settle a lawsuit claiming managers gave employees dog diapers and coffee filters to use as face masks. Chicago also became a hub of worker complaints over COVID precautions, with a judge issuing an injunction against several store owners after a class action suit was filed, ordering them to adopt new safety measures. A study from the University of California, San Francisco, reported a 60 percent jump in the mortality of line cooks; they had the highest risk of mortality during the pandemic, even more so than health care workers.

There’s even a distinct vaccine divide among the workers depending on whether they worked at the top and bottom of McDonald’s HQ. The corporate employees who returned to the West Loop this fall were fully vaccinated, while Kempczinski tried to fight Joe Biden’s proposed federal vaccination mandate for restaurant employees, claiming “we’re not set up to do that sort of verification” on testing and tracking COVID infections.

Kempczinski says he does want to make working at McDonald’s restaurants more fun, but that’s to help stave off unionization, the kind that’s increasingly coming to rival food service companies like Starbucks. The CEO recently told the Wall Street Journal that McDonald’s workers don’t need unions — a sentiment reflected in the company’s extensive spying on its workers as part of its effort to destroy fledgling organizing drives.

The labor organization Fight for $15 has long called McDonald’s the “Donald Trump of corporations,” and the HQ is a clear example why. The iconic golden arches affixed to the $400 million building symbolize the good life for the company’s small army of laptop-wielding marketing and HR managers who stroll the upper floors. Those at the bottom, like the rest of us in this second gilded age, get a supersized portion of exploitation.