A reader sent me an interesting article from the Toronto Star. It seems the minimum wage in Canada went up 25 cents to $8 an hour. For tipped workers, like waiters, the minimum increased 20 cents to $6.95. One Toronto restaurant, Joe Badalis, seemed to begrudge the extra 20 Canadian cents their servers were getting. They levied a $2 service charge per shift to cover the cost of washing servers aprons and providing dupe pads and cash envelopes. The memo management circulated to the waiters stated “It is our intention to collect an increasing amount of our costs associated with giving you as a server the opportunity to work at Joe Badali’s and receive gratuities from our guests. Effective Monday, January 29, the per day deduction for all servers will increase to $2.00.”
Of course, the service charge wiped out the tiny raise the waiters were getting. Is it just me or does that restaurant’s service fee sound like a brothel madam charging the hookers for clean sheets and condoms? A reporter from the Toronto Star caught wind of this maneuver and called the restaurant to ask about it. In typical needledick restaurant manager fashion Badalis Vice President retorted defensively, “How did you hear about that?” Because one of your servers called the paper, idiot.
Half an hour after the reporters call the VP called the newspaper back saying they had scrapped the plan and would stick with its existing 50-cent deduction to cover apron washing. The restaurant stated they were trying to recoup operating expenses, not recoup the increase in the new minimum wage. In any case, they sound like a cheap outfit to work for. Maybe the real reason the restaurant backed down so quickly was because they knew what they were doing was illegal. Canadian law says employers can only withhold wages for statutory deductions, such as employment insurance premiums and Canada Pension Plan contributions, or with a court order. For anything else, there must be a written agreement between the company and the staff stating the exact amount to be deducted, how it was calculated and that the employee agrees. Guess what. The servers didn’t agree. What Badalis’ tried doing is tame compared to the shit I’ve seen other restaurants pull.
When I worked at Amici’s, Sammy the manager, bought white aprons from a restaurant wholesaler and charged the waiters $11 per apron, pocketing a $6 profit. Of course we couldn’t bring our own aprons; Sammy made us buy his and we had to wash them ourselves! If you came to work with a spot on your apron Sammy would threaten to send you home unless you gave him $11 for a new one. Now I know why the aprons were white! Most waiters ponied up the money so they wouldn’t lose a shifts worth of cash.
Then there was the time I cut my finger slicing cheese. I had to go to the ER and get several stitches. Sammy, that lovely man, called me in the ER to tell me I had to return to work or be fired. To add insult to injury, Amici’s refused to pay the workman’s compensation claim. I got collection notices for three years. It could’ve been worse. I know a restaurant where a kitchen worker fell on the job and broke his arm. Since the worker was an illegal alien the restaurant cynically figured they could get away with not paying his ER bill. They told the employee he was on his own. The employee quit. Say what you want about illegal immigration, if the guy works for you and gets hurt you have some responsibility to take care of him. Some restaurant owners and managers think pushing around illegal immigrants and twenty year old waiters makes them tough. They start, like that Toronto eatery, to believe they can do whatever they want.
Some restaurateurs think the adulation showered on them by the adoring foodie public excuses them from attending to mundane details like treating employees fairly. When a chef thinks he or shes a hot shit culinary genius its easy for them to forget teamwork makes a restaurant great. Without great kitchens there are no great chefs. Without great waiters there are no great restaurants. Chefs and owners need to remember the mantra “Without the dishwasher the restaurant grinds to a halt.”
Waiters and back of the house employees are starting to fight back. The servers at Old Homestead Steakhouse, for example, filed a million dollar lawsuit against their employer, claiming management pilfered a percentage of their tips. Old Homestead is contesting the charges. A restaurant advocacy group recently paraded a 12 foot inflatable cockroach outside superstar chef Daniel Bouluds restaurant Daniel, protesting discriminatory practices they claim occur inside his establishment. Mr. Boulud has filed a defamation suit against the restaurant advocacy group to clear his name. All claimants deserve their day in court. Remember, everyone’s innocent until proven guilty.
Once upon a time restaurant employees never got their day in court, they suffered silently, afraid of losing their jobs. Now restaurant workers are becoming more vocal about asserting their rights. Sure, some of the complaining comes from bitter employees trying to settle old scores. But there are more abusive practices in the restaurant industry than the industry would have you believe. Workers are no longer prey for unscrupulous owners and managers. They’re fighting back. Good! More power to them. To be honest, I was rather disappointed when I read the Toronto Star article. I thought this sort of thing only happened in the US. Aren’t Canadians supposed to be socialists or something? Oh well. In any case, I’m glad my comrades in the Great White North are fighting back too.
Welcome to the revolution.