Reece Alvarez — Staff Writer
Instability, high rates of turnover and relatively loose oversight are all trademarks of working in the restaurant industry: as are lawsuits ranging from discrimination and sexual harassment to corrupt wage and labor practices. After eight years and seven jobs in the industry, it’s the wild west of the unskilled job market.
“The [restaurant] industry is the nation’s largest private sector employer,” Bob Bielinski said in a 2011 interview, head of the Restaurant Industry Practice within Corporate Finance at CIT, a Fortune 500 company. “A quarter of Americans today had their first job in a restaurant.”
The restaurant industry is undeniably a cornerstone of the American workforce; it is employing close to 13 million people and comprising 10 percent of the U.S. workforce, he added.
Restaurants are extremely attractive to young and unskilled workers, as well as students who traditionally have odd and limited hours available to work. A high school diploma and a good personality are often enough to get you through the door. In my experience, tips for part-time work have ranged anywhere from $400 to $800 a week. Compared with the average part-time cashier or sales representative, I would not have been able to support myself through school otherwise. The abundance of eligible employees and relative ease of getting a restaurant job has also lead to employees being taken advantage of, especially undocumented workers.
“Non-payment of overtime is always a big deal,” said Peter Goselin, a Hartford attorney specializing in wage and labor disputes.
“Employers often want to limit and control their expenses, mostly labor and overtime, by using a per-shift or per-week pay system no matter how long the shifts are,” he said.
Making money owning a restaurant is not easy. It is a notoriously difficult industry with high failure rates and tight profit margins. I’ve seen employers make employees pay for mistakes, a practice used throughout the industry for a number of offenses. Make a mistake on a check, you pay; table walks out on a check, you might pay; broken dishes, plates, etc., might come out of your tips.
According to the Connecticut Department of Labor website, “An employer may not withhold or divert wages unless provided specifically by law,” yet it’s done all the time.
Frankly, the laws are complicated,” Goselin said.
Even employers have difficulty knowing what proper legal procedure is and what is not.
“In the restaurant industry as in a handful of others, there are probably as many employers violating wage and labor laws as there are complying with the laws,” he said. “Many employers genuinely make mistakes but others recklessly or possibly even deliberately break the law.”
Next to overtime, the disbursement of tips is the next major area of dispute. Restaurants allow individuals to keep their tips while others require them to pool tips together for more pay stability. Where I work, pay is based on merit determined by a vote of senior staff. While seemingly fair, inequalities can occur such as a female trainee receiving less than the normal training pay because she is considered a less experienced waitress by an all male staff.
The pooling of tips is a topic at the heart of much of the debate and controversy over tipped wages. This system is illegal in some states, only being allowed as a voluntary system implemented by employees. In Connecticut there are no laws regulating tip pools and some restaurants require it.
The Federal Fair Labor Standards Act makes it clear, “Only employees who customarily and regularly receive tips can participate in a tip pool.”
Interestingly enough, my current manager who is not a regularly tipped employee is part of the tip pool and receives a full waiter’s cut of the tips.
Eddie Barata, 56, worked as a bartender at the infamous Sparks Steak House in Manhattan (where Gambino crime family boss Paul Castellano was killed at the front door) for 14 years. He was part of a multi-million dollar lawsuit because wait staff was being forced to pool their tips with portions being used to pay a number of non-tipped employee’s wages.
“Managers were getting money from the waiters’ tips,” Barata said.
With the help of a number of employees, a lawsuit was brought against Sparks resulting in large payouts to compensate for years of lost tips.
With the recent $5.25 million lawsuit against famed chef Mario Batali for wage abuses similar to those experienced by Barata, Goselin said employers are starting to wise up to the financial dangers of not following wage and labor laws.
“There is starting to be an increase in awareness that these laws are being broken and employees are starting to assert their rights,” Goselin said.
A major difficulty employees have in asserting their rights is the fear of losing a good paying job.
“For whatever reason, you were always afraid to lose your job,” Barata said of his 14 years at Sparks.
These gray areas of just what exactly an employer can do are crossed all the time, fueled largely by the industry-wide attitude that wait staff are a dime a dozen.
“Most people are rightfully terrified for their jobs,” Goselin said.
I’ve heard a number of managers rally staff moral with the line, “We spend more time here than with our families.”
They are usually right. I consider the people I work with a type of family. They are kids as well as dedicated family men and women juggling multiple jobs or education. They make their living hustling on their feet at the whim of employers and customers usually without any benefits, abused rights, and not a crumb of job security.
“Restaurants think they can get away with it,” Goselin said.
And often they do, but even big names like Batali have seen employees are starting to understand their rights, and at times, are willing to risk their livelihoods to fight for them.