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The Restaurant Trade -- equitable employers or sweat shops?

Updated on February 18, 2011

It's a job but is it a living?

"You work three jobs? … Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that." —President George W. Bush, to a divorced mother of three, Omaha, Nebraska, Feb. 4, 2005

Much of the world laughed at these words, but the sad truth of today’s economy means this is reality for many: multiple part-time jobs. In these trying times when jobs are scarce and the jobless plentiful, any kind of employment may be seen as a godsend for those trying to keep body and soul together.

The restaurant trade is a labor intensive industry and most, due to the nature of the work and often grueling schedules required, suffer high staff turnover and are always hiring. Or so it seems.

Do they offer a reasonable solution for those desperate for work – any work?

What’s it like, working in a restaurant these days?

This writer decided to find out. Come with me as I join the legions of workers in the restaurant trade.

For the purposes of this article, the restaurant industry does not refer to the five-Michelin-star establishments where dinner bills are tallied in the hundreds, but the ho-hum- everyday-every-city restaurants, the national chains such as, Outback, Olive Garden, Chili’s, Applebees, Ruby Tuesday, Denny’s, Red Lobster, Hooters – those restaurants that dot the American landscape. In fact, in most suburban areas, the corporate chains make up 95% of dining out choices, at an average cost of $13.99 per plate.

The myth

According to Tom Emmer (Republican candidate (unsuccessful) for the office of Governor of Minnesota,) minimum wage legislation for the restaurant trade should be removed as “some wait-staff are making $100,000/year in tips,” and the money saved could be used “to stimulate more employment.”

Let’s leave aside if such a lofty income is probable or even possible for the moment, and the question of how removing minimum wages might create more employment – which beggars the imagination – or how it would do anything other than increase the profitability of the corporate restaurant entity, and take a look at what tips mean to the restaurant industry.

In perspective:

The minimum wage of $7.25 per hour means I would have to work 27 hours just to pay my electricity bill for January of $193.00. My home (mortgage, insurance and taxes) requires my earnings of another 124 hours each month. My little car, costing me $150 month needs all the fruits of my labor for 21 hours. I would work 2 hours in order to purchase one meal in the restaurant in which I work.

What happens when you leave a tip for your server in a restaurant?

Did you know the money you leave as a gratuity actually goes toward bringing a large percentage of the restaurant’s workers up to minimum wage? That’s right.

Here in Florida, the labor law as applied to restaurants is worded like this:

“An employee who regularly receives tips as a part of his or her pay also receives, under federal and Florida law, a minimum wage of $4.23/hr. In order to have this exemption from the minimum wage apply, the employee must regularly receive more than $30 per month in tips, and be allowed to keep all of his or her tips. The tips plus wages combined must add up to at least the $7.25 per hour minimum.”

In case you were thinking "well don't claim all your tips, then," consider this. In every restaurant there are sections more popular than others, and assignment to the better sections is based on your performance -- which is measured by your tips to sales ratio. So if you don't claim all your tips in order to put some in your pocket, you will find yourself working the four tables right beside the kitchen where nobody wants to sit and is unhappy if placed there, making less money anyway. Yes, sir, they got you every which way.

However, in the realm of the corporate restaurants practice is otherwise. Servers are required to enter their tips into the computer system for each shift and a portion goes into the ‘tip-sharing pool’ to be shared with those staff also deemed ‘tipable,’ such as the host or hostess, the food runners who assist in serving, the bartender, the ‘expo’ (quality control person who gives final approval on each dish before it is served.) All of these positions are considered tip-earning and paid only the base of $4.23 even though they do not directly receive gratuities from the patrons.

Yes, that 15-20% of your bill you so generously leave in appreciation of good service does not rest in the pocket of the hopefully smiling server, but supplements the restaurant’s employee costs across the board.

Did you know?

Meet lmmartin, hostess

Neither did I.

I applied at a Port Charlotte, Florida restaurant -- one of those previously mentioned national chains whose name will be kept my secret -- because I had a couple of friends working there who put in a good word for me.

I met with the general manager, a pleasant young woman and then did a walk-through of the place, spending fifteen minutes at each work station – with the hostess, the servers, the bar, the expo station (where food is dressed, plates wiped and all is made pretty before it goes to the table,) and the cook-line, a beleaguered group of five cooks in a too-small space, busy micro-waving, deep-fat frying, grilling, roasting, boiling and otherwise heating-up the frozen pre-prepared entrees shipped from the corporate warehouse. Off to the side in another cramped area, two women prepared the fresh (or frozen) vegetables for the salad bar.

Servers pushed in and out the double swinging doors, entering orders into the computer system (which apparently fails as often as it works,) grabbing drinks, side orders, fresh plates… always at double time.

I was to be the new hostess. My job was to man the front door, greet the guests, seat them (in rotation according to the floor chart – though most of them know where they want to sit,) tell them about the specials, introduce their server by name, take care of any special needs like high-chairs or booster seats, park unneeded wheelchairs, walkers, baby-strollers (even oxygen tanks) out of the way, ensure the washrooms are in good order, take reservations, answer the phones, handle to-go orders… And during busy hours, run the “wait list” – a thankless task.

I was to wear plain black trousers (dress pants only,) a plain black knit shirt, black belt, black socks and black, non-skid, restaurant-certified, work-shoes (at a purchase price of $69.) In fact, the purchase of the required uniform set me back $110.00. (Or my entire earnings for 15 hours!)

The first two days required my presence at the restaurant at 7 AM until 11 AM for training – sitting at one of the computers, reading the corporate directives and taking a quiz at the end of each section, following which I was to work with the hostess on shift, learning the ropes.

She was an unhappy woman, having been in that position for ten years and still only earning $4.23/hour plus tips. Her first order of business was to tell me how miserable the job was. She resigns every couple of weeks, but still, she's there… Her sour attitude provided me with a less than auspicious beginning, and I wondered why she was chosen to train new staff. Or even why management hung on to her so tenaciously – I never once saw her smile. After the first twenty minutes, she sat and chatted with some regular guests, leaving me to do the work.

Okay – it was hardly rocket science. Or so I thought.

The restaurant

The restaurant can sit 186 at tables or booths, though the guests are squeezed in like sardines. Plus, the bar accommodates another 12 on bar stools, and on fine days, a further 32 can enjoy the outdoor patio. At capacity, 230 guests may be seated and served at one time.

But this restaurant is rarely at capacity. One of the many problems it faces. On a busy Saturday evening, one guest asked, "What's the wait?" I suggested 10 to 15 minutes. The guest sighed and said, "Fine. We'll take it. Everywhere else is at an hour and a half." Which pretty much tells you the status of this particular establishment.

Why is this?

Although part of a national chain and a corporate entity, the restaurant’s unloved status is apparent in the lack of maintenance: rips in the booth seats gaping wide and exposing the foam underneath – a collection place for food and germs; the dark oak finish of the once fashionable woodwork is worn in places right through the stain, and the surfaces are splintery; the carpeting is in need of a deep cleaning, if not replacement – the quick once over with a carpet sweeper twice a day is not enough. The restaurant is shabby, but kept dark enough the extent of the disrepair is not immediately noticeable. It is a cookie-cutter clone of the corporate chain, one that has not seen a face-lift in decades, an old-fashioned, 80's style dimly-lit cavern of a dining room.

The floor plan crams booths back to back with barely enough room between the table and the seat for anyone larger than an anorexic teenager to squeeze in, let alone the average middle-aged to elderly of Florida who make up the majority of the restaurant’s trade. In this restaurant, the dinner rush starts at 4:00 PM and is over by 7:30.

Few diners are what we’d call slim. In fact, much as I hate to use the term obese… The hostess seating the patrons often has to haul the table to one side to let the slow-moving guests park their canes and walkers and struggle across the seat, then push it back and hope those destined for the other side can scrunch themselves in, and finally pull the table back to the middle.

The four-seat booths would be comfortable for two. The two-top booths (to use the restaurant lingo) are up against the dividing half-walls and too small for larger-size guests (or anyone over 110 pounds.) Their bulk spills over into the aisles. Most guests refuse to sit at them, requesting the four-seaters. Another problem for the hostess, who must endeavor to seat the restaurant efficiently, particularly during peak hours.

There are sections with tables and chairs, much sought after by some of the less nimble guests – remember this is small-town Gulf Coast Florida -- but they are spaced so closely together that when a portly patron sits back from the table, the chairs at the next cannot be pulled out. The hostess must often swing the table and move all four chairs until they sit at an angle to allow guests to sit down.

But then, the servers are blocked from easy access to the booths and two-toppers in the section.

And they are mad at the hostess!

Certain sections, those at the front where the guests receive a cold draft each time the front door opens (yes, Florida winters can be damp and chilly) or the section of three tables crammed between the bar and the kitchen, are undesirable, and patrons will only sit in them if there is nowhere else available. They let you know how unhappy they are.

The servers assigned to those sections (those with low sales to tip ratios) demand you seat guests in their area -- but the guest's desires come first.

No matter what -- someone is mad at the hostess.

Here’s the where the sweat comes in

Florida has no labor legislation regarding breaks during the work day – though there is a common misconception about that. Only those under the age of 18 are deemed worthy of the protection of law when it comes to rest periods. Your employer is not required to give breaks, no matter how long the shift.

A restaurant is active from early in the morning (try seven or eight for the kitchen prep staff) to late at night, often cleaning up and serving those last late guests at eleven. But the need for full staff only occurs for a few hours a day – the mid-day meal rush from 11 AM to 2 PM and the evening dinner service which in Florida starts at 4 PM and is over by 7 or 7:30 PM, except for Friday and Saturday evenings, when dinner may extend to 8 or 9. (Port Charlotte is no haven for night owls – in fact, we refer to the sleepy little Gulf town as home to “the newly-wed and the nearly dead.”)

You can see the staffing difficulties.

One server comes in at 10:30 AM and spends most of her time cleaning and caring for the few who drop in for a coffee or a snack. Not a popular shift as there’s no money to be made. The rest of the servers are in by 11:45 ready for the lunch trade. But by 2:00, the restaurant is quiet again, but the servers will be needed by 4:00. Not wanting to pay for servers with no money coming in, management selectively ‘cuts’ servers to go off-the-clock – but what are they to do with an hour or two? Go home? Shopping? Another job? Not likely. No two days are the same. Staff cannot count on when they will be cut, or when they must return. They normally sit at a back table waiting to be called back to work, drinking coffee or grabbing a bite to eat –for which they must pay, by the way. So, in effect, paid or not, the servers are often in the restaurant from morning till 8:30-9:00 PM. Some servers work straight through from noon to ten or eleven.

There is no bussing staff in this restaurant. Servers must clean their own tables. They each look after three or four, and need fast turnover to make any money. But tired after already spending several hours in the restaurant, they often leave them dirty in order to slow down the seating.

Which means the waiting guests are mad at the hostess.

They do a half-hearted wipe down of the table tops. Often, I must find a clean cloth and wipe them myself before seating new guests. The servers may forget to wipe down the chairs, and I try to seat patrons only to find crusts, spilled sauce, sticky spots. (Great impression for the diners!) The servers are also responsible for cleaning their sections – floor, tables, woodwork – before they go home at the end of their shift. They are fatigued; it is not well done. Everyone is tired to the bone.

Corporate policies mandate a hostess must be on duty at all times starting at 10:30 AM, with two hostesses during the evening peak hours, whether trade requires it or not. So the day hostess stays on until the second hostess shows up at four – if she shows up – and then works until she is cut when the third arrives – maybe-- or at some point after the dinner rush.

Taken by my cell-phone at the end of a shift. This young woman has just finished for the night and is waiting to be 'released' by management.
Taken by my cell-phone at the end of a shift. This young woman has just finished for the night and is waiting to be 'released' by management.

Some days I worked only five hours – reasonably comfortable -- though the work is more physically demanding than you can imagine. But many days I started at 10:30 only to have to cover the second hostess’ s shift and then double up with the third. Over half my shifts turned into doubles – nine, nine-and-a-half, ten hours on my feet – my poor unhappy feet, imprisoned in a pair of heavy work shoes.

Head office also dictates that no guests should be left waiting at the entrance, while at the same time demanding the hostess spend the necessary time to settle the guests, attend to their immediate needs (including the shifting of tables, parking of wheelchairs,)and go through the ‘sales pitch.’ An absolute physical impossibility.

The shift manager (someone who has survived a year or more of this grueling schedule) grabs my arm, “You can’t leave people waiting!” and points at a cluster of patron at the front door, instead of greeting and seating them herself. (I do leave a dot on the next table to be seated – if anyone cares to look.) The general manager comes out of her office to ask me “When was the last time the washrooms were checked?” As I have not stopped moving in hours, I laugh and give some smart-ass reply. (Go ahead, fire me. Please.) An angry waitress saunters up to say, “If you don’t seat my section, I’ll do it for you,” though she is working the despised section of tables between the bar and the kitchen, and no one wants to sit there.

It seems everyone is mad at the hostess.

Ten long hours into the day, a day in which I was scheduled to work only five hours, the dinner rush is over. I want to go home. I can barely stand to put one aching foot before the other. I am told I must first attend to the washrooms. By the time I get home, I’ve spent twelve hours out of my day preparing for the job, driving to the job, doing the job and driving home again. In all of these shifts, I have never made more than minimum wage. My highest earning day has been $71.75.

If I am able to sneak in a cup of coffee, I must go off the clock. If I go to the washroom for more than three minutes, I must go off the clock. If I need to eat anything, I must pay for it. If there is an accident that stains my clothes, I must have fresh ones for the next shift – out of my own pocket. If I cannot work a scheduled shift, it is my responsibility to find a replacement out of the stable of four hostesses, of which two are working every day.

Sickness is no excuse.

Public health concerns

This is not my first foray into the restaurant trade. Back (way back) when I was a single mom going to school, I worked in restaurants in Montreal. Before I could be hired, I had to first have a physical health clearance which included a blood test, a tuberculin test and a chest x-ray – all in the name of public health. No one worked in any establishment serving, preparing or handling food without such a health card.

Florida does not have such regulations. Your server may have tuberculosis or be HIV positive – you don’t know. Neither does the restaurant. Same with the cooks – who cut themselves regularly and sweat.

One thing you can be assured of, they were required to give a urine sample to see if they tested positive for trace amounts of marijuana, or if they snorted a line of cocaine in the past few weeks. Does that make you feel better?

One day, while manning the phone at my station as is part of my job, I took a call from a server who could not come in for her shift because she’d just been diagnosed with strep throat. Streptococcus, that miserable bacteria, often antibiotic resistant, responsible not only for sore throats but for many more serious ailment – scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, damage to the heart, death and highly contagious.  I listened with growing horror as the shift manager argued she should come in to do her shift anyway and slammed down the phone.

Me, being me, I said, “You’ve got to be kidding! You want someone with an infectious ailment to come in and serve food to the public? Really? Have you any idea how dangerous streptococcus is?” I add, somewhat heatedly, “Especially to the elderly. Not to mention that two of your servers are pregnant.”

“Well she was infectious yesterday and now she’s on antibiotics. So what?” said the shift manager.

I shook my head, making mental note to ensure this episode is not only reported in my article, but to the local press. (As you may have guessed, I am not in the slightest vested in this new career. It is research, only research and my time here is drawing to an end.)

Five minutes later, the same young woman called back, in tears. I’ve come to know her. She’s twenty-two, a single mother who lives with her equally hard-up parents and she needs this job.  She is very ill, and cannot work her shift. Can I give her some phone number of the other servers so she can find someone to work for her? I took up her case with the general manager, adding a good deal of editorial comment.

Fine. This poor hard-working woman will not lose her job if she doesn’t work her shift, providing a doctor’s certificate is faxed in.

As I leave the office, she is already going through the fat file of applications – there’s no end to those seeking work, any work -- looking to hire more servers and probably a new hostess or two.

To Mr. Tom Emmer, who is not the governor of Minnesota (thank God!)

The corporate entity which owns the chain of restaurants I write of showed a bottom line profit for 2009 (2010 not yet available) of over six million dollars – and a nice little dividend to the shareholders.

Of course, when you have the general public subsidizing your payroll costs; when you hire enough people to cover your needs without having any one person work more than 40 hours a week, thus avoiding paying benefits; when you nickel and dime those people to death (on one check I was deducted $1.74 for a ten-minute break to grab a cup of coffee;) when you schedule workers on a constantly changing basis to meet your desires, but destroying any chance they may have to live a life planned around hours required of the job and perhaps get another (schedules are posted on Fridays and go into effect on Wednesday, never the same and no one gets regular hours); when you refuse to reinvest any money in upgrading your facilities and easing the physical burdens of the job; when you publicly announce you have a fine benefit package available to all employees – health insurance for example, but the cost of those benefits exceeds the worker’s income; when you threaten, denigrate, over-work people desperate for some kind of income – well, I guess a profit isn’t too difficult to earn.

And you want to do away with minimum wages for restaurant workers?

Here’s an idea: I’d like to see you work in one of these fine establishments. I’ll come in and watch you earn those big bucks you speak of.

Don’t worry. I’ll leave a decent tip – which should bring you up to minimum wage.

Here, sir, is reality:

On a busy day, tables are turned over twice at lunch and three times at dinner; top servers get four tables, others get three.  The average meal is $13.99 to which we’ll add $5 for a beverage. Most tables served are two patrons. Average tip: $6.00. The top servers will earn $30 - $50 in a shift. They work three double shifts (9-10 hours) to five single shifts (5 to 6 hours) a week.  You could say top earners make an average of $200.00 a week in tips, speaking generously, or a whopping $10,400 a year.  Now reduce that by 10% for the tipping pool – that component required to bring the rest of the staff up to minimum wage and we have $8,360 annually.

We add the component you want to do away with: the minimum wage of $4.23 per hour. Thirty hours at that piddling rate works out to $126.90 a week, or $6,598.80 annually.

Add the two together and you have the princely sum of $14,959 a year. Woo-hoo! Why that’s $247.48 a week!  

Minimum wage of $7.25 for thirty hours a week comes to $217.50.

How much do you make, sir?


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