Systemic Problems in the Restaurant Industry — From Wage Theft to Racism and Much More

wage-theftLast 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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  • roz33

    Just got told after eight years of service I will no longer be receiving any wage. I only earn tips

    • Mayrine French

      Isn’t that insane? I have worked in this industry quite a bit of my life, and right now if you work in TN you are paid the 2.13, as opposed to 8.00 in West Yellowstone Montana…..

  • CAWL

    The first place I worked required me to tip out the hostess ( who was also the owners wife) because she rang the cash register. But she didn’t. She sat and played KENO all day.
    When I quit they said that they were missing money and had video of me at the register ( which she made me run) and then bending down to below it ( where the cash drop for bills over 100 was).
    I told them to go ahead and take it to the police because then they’d have to watch all the video and would see her pulling 20’s out to play the lotto.
    My second restaurant job was amazing and because the down time was sporatic at best and breaks might or might not happen, they fed us dinner ( 4 star food) for free, and made, those of us old enough, cocktails at the end of our evening. We were required to tip out the bartender and our bussers ( which no one minded because they saved us quite often)

    • Kris

      We also had to tip out the hostess. Who did nothing but walk people to tables, out of rotation, and sometimes the tables were dirty. She picked favorites so you always had to be on her good side so she’d actually sit people in your section. She never helped the bussers nor did she help with silverware even when we were totally out. Her response to everything was “it’s not my job”. She would bring stacks of magazines to read and play on her phone all the time.

  • Jordan

    I worked at a Steak N Shake in Macon, Georgia for more than two years. I worked 60 hour weeks as a teenager. Management would often go back on company computers and delete worked hours so that they wouldn’t have to pay overtime. The owner of the restaurant refused to have his building up to code or spray for pests so insects were everywhere in the restaurant. I finally left the restaurant when I was asked to work 17 hour shift on my day off, stayed there until 3am, and got a call the next morning at 7am (also on a day that I wasn’t supposed to work) informing me that I would be fired if I didn’t come in before 9am. I had another job that I had to be in the office for at 10 am, but they didn’t care. So I just told them I quit.

  • Carol

    When I lived in New Orleans, LA I worked in several different places. #1 Hired when the entire staff had walked off the job in protest. Told that could not bring food to work and no, could not eat their food either. “you will NOT be getting any breaks, so suck it up!” told could only drink water nothing else, only bathroom break if approved by Host and then limited to max of 3min. or fired. Not allowed to eat there even in off time during empl. and for 6mos after even as a guest.”If you can’t abide these rules, don’t bother working here cause there are plenty out there who need a job and will.” #2 All ret. in Fr Qtr of N.O. paid same, $1.25 hr. wages to be made up in tips, if not, employer was to make up diff. Teah, right! Told to declare enough in tips on time card to make the min. wage, whether we actually made it or not. That way the Rest. could avoid making up the wages. #3 Best treating Rest. paid only $.50 hr, but did not take a cut,we had breaks, could eat whatever we wanted and treated with respect. .

  • Kris

    I worked at a seafood restaurant where the manager would change my hours if I clocked in even 10 minutes early (when opening the place) and then change my leaving hours to when we closed. Even though 90% of the time I was there closing for at least an hour afterwards. I didn’t notice at first but then started saving printouts of my clock in/out times and comparing them to my “check” (which was always below $10.). Went to the GM about it and gave him my 2 weeks. He begged me to stay for lent but it was on my terms on who I worked with. Walked out the day lent ended and haven’t been back. Good food. One of the most awful places to work.

  • eholt

    I finished high school a bit early and moved to a neighboring city. I was immediately offered a job at a neighborhood coffee house. The owner acted fatherly and said I could keep my tips and he would pay my wages at the end of the month. In Oregon restaurant workers must be paid at least minimum wage I worked 8- 12 hour shifts 5 days per week for that entire month. At the end of the month he showed up with his girlfriend (a lawyer) and they tried to make me sign something that said I had been paid in full. They offered a check for $250 dollars. When I refused to sign they locked me in the cafe and threatened to break my nose. Eventually my boyfriend showed up and started making a scene outside when he realized I was locked in. They let me go and I took no money. The man owned other cafes and I knew he was paying most if not all of his people under the table. I phoned the IRS but they were uninterested. They told me to make a report to the better BBB, which I did. The really appalling thing is that I was a minor at the time. He stole from a hard working, 95 lb, 17 year old and threatened to break her nose.

    • CAWL

      Seriously? Sounds like the owner of the first place I worked…except he didn’t have girlfriends, he hired hookers and took them into the back room.

    • Andrew Ashburn

      You need to get in touch with the DA. That’s extortion. Criminal offense. If you can’t get any traction on that ground, try civil litigation. Depending, of course, on whether or not the applicable statute of limitations has already passed in your state.

    • Mary K

      Contact your state labor board. I once worked where we were given only one 15 minute break for an entire 8 hour workday. Turns out that’s illegal in my state, and you are supposed to get a half hour break after 5.5 hours worked. The state came down on that employer!

  • irishrose

    My first job was as a cook in what use to be a big name chain restaurant. I received the same wages as the waitresses did and they got to keep all their tips while I was the one that had to prepare their meals, empty their buses, do the dishes and clean up the kitchen at the end of the night without any help from the waitresses. I don’t think that was totally fair either, especially when the waitresses wouldn’t put on the tickets any changes that were to be made to the plates and when they would come up to collect their plates and then tell me that it was suppose to be minus this and plus that. Just not fair! I worked just as hard if not harder than they did for the same wages minus tips!

    • Mary K

      According to Federal law, cooks are not tipped employees. Neither are dishwashers. Your employer was commiting a Federal offense.

  • Charles Vincent

    I was working as a manager at a fast food franchise. Worked there for a little over three years when I caught the gm forging my initials on bank deposit logs and my signature on several bank deposit slips. I took the slips and logs made copies of them and took them to the area manager. He tried to turn it on me when I had a meeting with him and the gm who had forged my initials an signature. Two weeks later I was let go for being incompetent which disqualified me from collecting unemployment while trying to find a new job.

  • Timm Higgins

    I seriously must have lucked out, because none of this has ever happened to me or any kitchen I’ve worked in, including my own. So honestly I can’t provide any kind of perspective.