EL CERRITO, Calif. — It isn't the modest paycheck that keeps Nellie Legler racing from the salad bar to the drink counter at the Burger King restaurant where the 74-year-old widow is among the fastest workers.
It's things like being called "Grandma" by the younger workers, even though she has no grandchildren of her own.
"Burger King is just like my second home," said Legler, who was born Nellie Sung to a prosperous Shanghai family and never held a job until 1980. "It's the only thing that keeps me going."
Legler's husband, Lester, a U.S. government electrical engineer who went to China under a United Nations development project, died in 1979.
"I don't have any relatives here. After my husband died, I felt so lonely and depressed," Legler said. "Now I find I can do something useful. I'm going to keep on working until I drop."
Legler belongs to a growing rank of older workers being courted by fast-food and some full-service industries faced with a decreasing number of teen-age workers and the growing population of America's elderly.
"They have a different work ethic," said Arlene Anthony, co-owner of McDonald's franchises in central Contra Costa County. "I like older employees. They're always on time, do a good job and aren't calling in sick unless they're really sick."
Legler was recruited by Emily Kemp, 58, who has worked at the franchise for seven years. Although Legler broke a rib several weeks ago, she plans to return to her average stint of 30 hours a week, with her doctor's approval.
The job includes her regular customers, such as Tim Baker, a retired man who drops in every morning for breakfast.
She works at positions some of the younger workers haven't mastered, said store manager Dan Forster.
"She pulls her weight," he said.
Managers who have seen her at the drink station say no one can keep up with Legler's tireless pace.
"You can't keep Nellie down," said Marvin Poates, director of operations at the six-store Burger King franchise. "This is her family."