Last week, I wrote an article about Paula Deen and the culture of discrimination in the restaurant industry. I felt that while it covered some important points about racism and sexism, it almost completely left out the even bigger issue, which is exploitation of workers. Recently, fast food workers in New York appeared at a hearing in which City Council members are investigating wage theft in the city as part of a greater national issue that has been mostly overlooked. That issue is the abuse and exploitation that is rampant throughout the industry, and low wage workers are the ones who suffer the most from it.
Whether it is fast food or fine dining, I’ve worked it all, both front and back of the house. It’s how I put myself through college or paid the bills between corporate gigs. Whether it was a family owned restaurant or a national chain, it was not uncommon for workers to be asked to work off the clock, come in while extremely ill, or work under someone else’s time card. When you’re just a couple missed shifts away from financial disaster, you have no choice but to acquiesce to the demands of management if you want be able to afford bus fare or food for your kids. You’ll likely look the other way and say nothing when managers steal cases of expensive meat, drink on the job and abuse employees, as was the case during my last stint at a national seafood-themed restaurant. You may not like the fact that management takes as much as 20% of your tips to pay the dishwashers, bussers and hosts as part of a “tip pool” (also the case at my last restaurant job), but when faced with the choice between that and no job at all — many people will quietly grumble and keep rolling silverware off the clock. Often, the amount withheld from your tips was based off the total of your sales, not your actual tips. If you had a table with a $500 bill and they only left you $20, you just lost money. Restaurants are required to offset the difference if the $2.13 an hour they paid you and the tips you made didn’t total minimum wage, but all too often they’ll threaten your job if you don’t declare that you made at least $7.25 total.
Another good example of wage theft is the Pennsylvania McDonald’s franchise that forced employees to receive their paychecks on a debit card which charged fees every time they were used, and those fees went back in the pocket of the franchise owner. You cannot write these off as isolated incidents or just a few disgruntled employees trying to get back at an employer — this is a systemic problem. The restaurant industry often depends on people who are desperate. It is a place of last resort for addicts, convicted felons and those who have little chance of getting a job anywhere else. Employers know this, and many use that to further their financial gain. To be fair, I have worked in a few places that while rough, treated their workers fairly and with respect. It’s really a shame how those are the exception rather than the norm.
Have you had similar experiences? Feel free to share your story in the comments below.
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