Owners of restaurants, coffee shops, and the like are often at the front of the line to complain about how Nobody Wants To Work These Days. No doubt coincidentally, they often provide some of the worst examples of why nobody wants to work for them. And this one is spectacular.
Boston-area journalist Deanna Schwartz started to apply to work at her local coffee shop, Phinista. Started, but didn’t finish, thanks to an outrageous and illegal line on the application. The story doesn’t end with Schwartz, though, because it turns out that Phinista crushed a union drive earlier in the year, and the workers who organized that have a lot to say about their former workplace. And the abuses at Phinista are not unique to one independent coffee shop, but are widespread across the food service industry.
RELATED STORIES: Wage theft is a huge problem that requires a creative solution
Here’s where it starts:
When that tweet blew up, Phinista posted about “negative and very incorrect gossip.” It was “completely wrong and incorrect,” management said, to say that the trial period was unpaid. Instead, it was “unpaid for the first two weeks and IMPLEMENTED on their second payroll.” The application’s “We require 3 unpaid trial days to see if you are a good fit” was “worded very incorrect,” according to this update, and “we apologize for the confusion.”
Even if the claim that people found to be a “good fit” and hired get paid for that initially unpaid trial when they reach their second payroll period, there’s nothing okay about this. First off, anyone who doesn’t get hired or doesn’t make it to the second payroll is out three half-days of work. At Massachusetts minimum wage, that would be $171 before taxes, which is real money. A Massachusetts government website on law about hiring employees directs questions about “working interviews” to this piece by attorney Devora Lindeman, who writes that people should be paid at least minimum wage (if not the listed wage for the job) for working interviews, and that the working interview should be kept as short as possible.
And, importantly, “If you want to ‘try out’ an applicant for more than a partial day, the process is likely getting beyond a working interview.”
Even the people who end up working at Phinista after the unpaid trial are getting screwed, though, because waiting weeks extra to be paid for work you did is not acceptable. But what do you know: When the former Phinista workers who tried to organize a union spoke up in response to Schwartz’s tweet, their experience was very different from what management is claiming.
“While Phinista denies that they do not pay people who participate in said trial (whether hired or not) we would seriously dispute this claim,” Sarah Kowal and Tiffany Wang wrote. “Throughout Sarah’s year and a half at Phinista there were more “unpaid trials” than she could even count. Several of these people were friends or classmates of ours and all of them recall being told the same thing: 12 hours of unpaid training would be expected, and that this expectation was completely legal. As far as we were ever told, this “trial” was NOT reimbursed in any form, whether someone was hired or not after the fact. Sarah brought the issue of unpaid labor up with the owners of Phinista several times, but was shot down every time.”
But, Kowal and Wang wrote, that was not the only issue at Phinista. Last spring, they had union card signatures from 100% of the shop’s small staff, only to have to abandon the organizing effort within a week after being “scolded, manipulated, and punished.” In fact, Tiffany Wang tweeted, there were much more pressing issues that led them to try to unionize than the unpaid trial period:
Phinista’s owners also used the classic “our employees are like a family” line, using that to frame the union drive as a personal betrayal. After Kowal’s grandmother died, she and Wang wrote, she let management know she would need time off. In response, they made a contribution in her grandmother’s memory—kindness on the surface that they then wielded against Kowal: “One of the things they said to Sarah when scolding us immediately following our announcement of intent to unionize was regarding this gift and the message was along the lines of ‘how could you betray us like this after we donated to a cause for your dead grandmother’. This was a common theme amongst interactions between the owners and their employees. While the owners would honor employees’ birthdays, celebrate our successes, or even mourn with us, it was almost always thrown back in our faces if we did something that displeased the owners.”
This isn’t unique. In fact, UnionBustingPlaybook.com includes this entry in the union-busting script:
“Having a union will ruin our ‘family’ work environment. Please give us another chance.”
Your employer might warn that with a union, there will be new rules and less flexibility. They might also play on workers’ emotions, making you think just talk about a union has made them realize there are problems and they should treat you better or institute “open-door” policies. They might even say they’ll do things similar to what unions do, like institute grievance procedures.
Phinista took the “family work environment” right past the honeymoon period abusers so often employ, and straight to the berating and anger.
But it’s not just Phinista. In response to Schwartz’s tweets, many people noted that lots of food service businesses require unpaid trial periods. It’s still illegal—but it means that this is not a single abusive establishment, it’s an abusive industry exploiting the nation’s weak labor laws and weaker enforcement of those laws.
Wage theft is also hugely common in the restaurant industry in lots of ways other than unpaid trial periods. In 2019, McDonald’s paid $26 million to settle wage theft accusations in California. Those allegations included being denied overtime and timely breaks and having to do cleaning and maintenance on their required uniforms that took their pay below the minimum wage. Similar suits have been filed in other states as well. It’s not just McDonald’s: Survey after survey has found majorities of fast food workers saying they’ve experienced wage theft. Nor is it just fast food. Tipped workers in restaurants also report high levels of wage theft.
These abuses and outright violations of the law—wage theft is theft—are so common, and yet to hear employers tell it, they are the victims. Another example of that popped up just this week:
Guys, pay your workers and maybe it won’t be so difficult.
On Daily Kos’ The Brief we talk about the work being done to keep Nevada’s Senate Democratic. We are joined by UNITE HERE director Mario Yedidia. UNITE HERE represents more than 250,000 workers throughout the U.S. and Canada who work in the hospitality, gaming, food service, manufacturing, textile, laundry, and airport industries. Yedidia tells us about what workers in Nevada are thinking about and voting about this coming November.
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