Mary Hutchison's paralyzing fear was that she'd die working late at Burger King.
The 45-year-old former Burger King manager and mother of three had been pistol-whipped with such force in a late-night robbery that she lost hearing in her right ear.
Nine months later, she pushed aside that memory — for which she was seeing a therapist — to fill in at a Burger King in nearby Lindenhurst, Ill. On Nov. 27, 2006, while working alone in the 4 a.m. darkness, her worst fears barged in the back door. A former employee stabbed her 21 times before strangling her with her bow tie, police reports say.
Both robberies occurred between midnight and 6 a.m. Those are common convenience-store hours, but until recently, most fast-food stands were closed after midnight.
In the past several years — responding to customer demand and the lure of extra sales — McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and others have stretched their days with later closings and earlier openings. The extra nighttime hours, however, bring extra risk for crime. Questions now are being raised about whether the industry, with 4 million U.S. workers, is adequately beefing up protection for those hours.
"Some fast-food chains have come up with special food menus after midnight," says James Alan Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University. "But what they really need are special late-night security menus."
Such thinking doesn't come naturally to an industry that spends more than $2 billion a year promoting itself as fun and friendly. But there are signs that just by coming to work, fast food's late-hour workers might be putting their lives at risk.
Some 109 worker homicides at limited-service (fast-food) restaurants were reported from 2003 through 2006, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says. The number rose from 24 in 2005 to 28 in 2006, a 17% increase.
Compared with jobs with a greater reputation for late-night risks, the total is more than the 27 homicides of taxi drivers in 2006. It's just seven less than the 35 convenience-store workers killed in 2006, a 17% drop from 2005.
More common are assaults: 2,750 workers at food-service and drinking places suffered non-fatal assaults from 2003 through 2006, says the bureau (it does not break out assaults for fast-food places).
While statistics for 2007 are not out, "Violent crime will only increase in fast food," says Rosemary Erickson, president of Athena Research, a security researcher.
Of course, criminals are responsible for these tragic events, but late hours add vulnerability. Of all robberies anywhere in the USA in 2005, nearly 26% took place between midnight and 6 a.m., according to an analysis for USA TODAY by Fox of federal National Incident-Based Reporting System data.
"Increasing store hours increases the hours that the bad guys can rob you," says Bill Wise, a consultant at Security Wise Group and former safety and security manager for Wendy's on the East Coast. "Darkness to dawn is the highest time of exposure to armed robbery."
The convenience-store industry knows this well. A crime wave followed the 1970s expansion by 7-Eleven and others into 24-hour operations.
Following lawsuits, pressure from lawmakers and negative publicity, most added security measures that many fast-food chains, still new to round-the-clock hours, have not fully addressed.
"These places are like low-hanging fruit for the bad guys," says John R. Roberts of J.R. Roberts Security Strategies, a retail consultant.