Monday, July 11, 2005

Working Situation

For those who don't know me personally, I am working this summer to save up money for a trip to Mexico. Until recently, I was earning money by pulling shifts as a waiter at Plato's diner in College Park. Many people including my girlfriend had told me not to work their because they had seen the place "chew up and spit out" those working the night shift (where new waitors are all placed).

The pay there usually isn't bad, all tips considered, but the hours for the night shift are pretty inconvenient to say the least. During the weeknights, most people work from 4:30 or 4:45 PM until about 2:00 AM. On the weekend, the clock-out is closer to 4:00 AM, although if a rush comes in late people have been known to stay until almost 6:00 AM. Working a 12 hour shift can be tough as a waiter, especially when the take-home tips tend to be in the $70-80 area (as they have been for me personally this summer). Furthermore, new folks are always scheduled for the least desired shifts, weekend nights.

I was lucky enough that the night manager Sal, generally agreed to be the meanest and worst manager on staff, quit the night before my first shift. Well, actually I showed up to work under him, and he sent me home. I had tried to switch shifts with someone to work a Wednesday night, but the general manager had neglected to add me to the schedule. When I showed up to work that Wednesday, Sal told me that I wasn't on the schedule and should go home.

Because of that oversight, a senior staff member was pressured to pull a double shift. Sal never showed up for work the next night (the angered wife of an owner showed up 45 minutes late and was on the phone the whole shift demanding some days of vacation over the next month). Sal has not showed up to work since. Though the general manager called Sal an "idiot" for sending me home, management claims that he is only taking a month off due to a "family emergency." I guess they figure that no one from the night shift will be there in a month to notice that Sal had not returned.


I figured that I would be OK at Plato's despite the warnings I had been giving because I am not the type of person to take shit from anyone, especially employers. Furthermore, since the first day I worked there, I had been looking for other work.

I first got in trouble with management with friendly suggestions on my first full shift that night staff turnover would be lower if staff was paid a minimum wage once the doors of the restaurant closed for the night. For those who don't know, people who work for tips (such as waiters) can be paid as low as $2.85 an hour, and it is typical for businesses to give these workers "side-work" for them to do after serving tables for the night. At Plato's the night staff worked for about an hour average cleaning tables, vacuuming, pouring old ketchup into new bottles, restocking the shelves, and windexing the glass. After my unsolicited advice, I was told that I should "stop talking about things [I] know nothing about," and that "if [I] don't like working at the restaurant, THERE is the door!"

Perhaps my friendly suggestion might not have gotten me in much trouble at work, but my next night I asked to be sent home early several times because business was so slow and there was a lot of waiters working that night so my section was very small (and so was the tips I earned that night consequently). More importantly, I learned I had been scheduled for a shift over July 4th weekend that I knew i could not make. Plato's policy states that anyone who doesn't fill a shift they can't work is fired, even if they explicitly asked not to work that shift before the schedule was made (as I had done).

Expecting to be fired for not showing up to work on July 2nd, I considered walking out the entire night of my last shift before that date. However, I had several diners complement me on giving them "the best service they had ever had at Plato's" to the hostest, and business was ok. Plus, despite the scolding I recieved from management for talking to the hostess early in the night, I was starting to get comfortable waiting and actually having a good time.

At the end of the night, I spent about an hour cleaning, including vacuuming with a back-up mounted machine. I realized that while I was earning $2.85 for doing this work, the Salvadoran immigrants who did this work at the University of Maryland were getting more like $9.00 an hour plus benefits for doing the work. They are hard workers, and I respect many of them as colleagues and friends, but I have spoken with many who complain that the back-pack vacuums put a difficult stress on their backs and aggravate muscular injuries. I wondered what they would think to learn that their interpreter was vacuuming the floor for a fraction of what they earned.

After I was asked to clock-out for the night, others requested I help them finish our side-work wrapping silverware in napkins. I replied "Shoot, as much free labor as this place gets out of me, if I start doing more side-work, I am going to have to clock back in and get my $2.85." Though no manager was present at that time, that comment would apperantly be my downfall.

Another waitress (the most senior on staff that night since she had been working since MAY), had taken up the resposibility of barking orders at me all night. I had let her know that she was not my supervisor and would not talk to me in that demanding tone. She apperantly went off to the general manager with a laundry list of real, invented and exagerated offensive examples of my "bad attitude." I went home that night with $78 dollars for 9.5 hours of work.

The next day when I showed up to discuss my July 2nd dilemma with the general manager, I was advised that I was being taken off of the schedule until further notice. Because my "bad attitude," was "contageous" and infecting other staff, I would be suspended until the general manger got back from her vacation on July 11th. When I picked up my 2 week pay check the next day, I was reminded why I had wanted for more money after- hours work, it was $42.56 for my bank account.


For those who don't know College Park or who have not yet realized it, Plato's has a permenant "now hiring" banner above the front door. The people who complain that the place "chews up" new waiters generally quit without giving any notice. In the three weeks that I worked there, at least two staff that started with me or after me quit. On the my last night working there, the acting manager had been there for 2-3 months the previous summer and another couple of weeks this summer. She was the most senior staff available to work that Sunday night. On some shifts, I was the only individual able to communicate with both the Spanish language kitchen staff and the English language staff out front (since the disappearance of the bilingual night manager).

When I searched for people to cover my shift on July 2nd, I was told by every waiter either "I don't work Saturday nights," "I am out of town," or "I am working that night" (one person told me they were working both saturday and sunday day shifts and so could not also work the night shift, which would have been about 24 hours of work over a 24-26 hour period).

Your response, Sr. San Martin?

I considered some dramatic response to my quasi-firing, but I had not confirmed subsequent employment (until later that day, thank you AFSCME local 1072). What I really wanted to say was "damn, with an attitude like that, Why do you think you got a permenant now hiring sign out front."

Poor management

As is typical with authoritarian anti-worker styles of management, they were wasting more money firing and losing people like me than if they would have paid time and a half (about $4.00/hour) for all work done after the restaurant had closed. Each new employee must work for a minimum of 12 hours of "training" at minimum wage ($5.85). During that time, they get in the way more then they contribute to the functioning of the restaurant. In my three weeks working there, it was rare to see a day shift without at least one person training. In fact, on one shift I counted one person training, one person on a "test shift" (they take a test and then only wait on one table all night if they pass), and one person on their first full-fledged shift.


So, my final words to Plato's, when this is all done, not only will I never walk into that restaurant, but I will tell my friends and family not to go their either. Not only are they rude to their waiters, but I wonder if they pay some of their kitchen staff a minimum wage ($5.85/hour). Not to mention the shopping list of health-code violations witnessed my friends and colleagues (someone should post that up on the wall so management takes more notice of this problem). Try Siri's Chef Secret on Greenbelt Road as your College Park staple restaurant, or give the College Park Diner farther north a try (though I cannot vouch for their hygiene, that place is suspicious too).

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