Ever since I moved here, I’ve noticed a very distinct (and new to me)
attitude from nearly every employer. It never ceases to shock me, no
matter how many times it is blatantly expressed. This attitude embodies
everything that is wrong with the food-service industry here in Texas.
Yet, every business owner seems confident the laws here were
designed not only to protect them, (from bad employees among other
things) but also that the laws are right, just, and fair.
I think the most direct verbalization of this attitude I’ve encountered
was while training at The Gypsy Lounge in East Austin; I was hoping to
bartend during SXSW. This week is famously successful for business
owners and bartenders alike, and it seems that most bars are hiring,
although only temporarily.
After completing two ten hour “training” shifts, before which I was not
asked for W-2 information or even to punch in/record my hours (nor was I
earning tips), I took Michael (the strung-out grown man-child of an
owner) aside and asked if I should be keeping track of my training hours
or filling out forms of some kind. Michael’s response was very
straightforward: “I need you to train so you can work SXSW. You will be
working for tips, so I won’t be paying you, I don’t have to.” He went on
to elaborate: “some of the new-hires had a problem with that, but that’s
fine, I can always find someone else who won’t.” I tried to play it
cool, but this was a huge red flag.
My general experience is this: when your boss has a “you are
replaceable” attitude, rarely can there be a healthy and respectful
employee/employer relationship. This attitude keeps the boss on top and
the insignificant minions in their place. This is a classic example of
what I’m sure someone very smart and famous once said, and something
that my father has since beaten to death: “if you can’t earn someone’s
respect, fear is the next best thing.” And this time it worked. I
desperately wanted to work SXSW and even more desperately needed the
I continued to train and luckily my awesome coworkers tipped me out a
couple of times. This year was my first SXSW, but I had heard from
everyone that it was going to be NUTS. I heard stories of bartenders who
took home over $1,000.00 a night, and was told we would probably be
making at least $600.00/day. I was excited to work a 14 hour shift with
no hourly compensation, because I honestly believed the tips would be
worth it, no matter how bad my ears were ringing or my back was killing
me. Maybe it would have been worth it. I didn’t get to find out.
On the morning of the first big SXSW day, I was asked to arrive at 10
am. I was told there would be a half hour or so of getting situated and
having a sort of “team meeting.” I was worried Michael had hired too
many people and I didn’t want to be the last to arrive, so I showed up a
solid forty five minutes early. I got dropped off, because even at 9:15
am, parking was a problem. This fateful day also happened to be St.
Patrick’s Day. I dressed accordingly in a green shirt and some green
makeup. On previous St. Paddy’s occasions, I’ve felt very underly
festive compared to my coworkers and, of course, no one wants to get
pinched. Boy did I feel like a fool. Forty five minutes early?! I was
the last person there, not to mention every other employee was wearing
exclusively black clothes. The second I walked in the door it became
very obvious everyone had already met (there were scraps of their shared
breakfast all over the bar) and were probably good friends.
I tried not to act embarrassed and started helping unload cases of beer
into the coolers, cut limes, and refill straw holders. After half an
hour, in strutted Michael with an “oh shit” look on his face. He
immediately called me outside for a “quick word.” He started explaining
that he had been too busy and had forgotten to call to let me know he
didn’t need me until later, if at all.
I was upset. But I shouldn’t have been. It had been clear from the very
beginning that this person (someone who couldn’t even pay me $2.13/hr)
didn’t give a shit about my time.
A month later, I was “contract” bartending for a restaurant I had
previously been fired from. At the end of the night, the owner was
trying to figure out what he wanted to pay me per hour. I had come in at
a moment’s notice to help on a busy Friday, after all. He decided $10/hr
was fair, until he realized I had made some tips. Then he tried to
negotiate my wages down. I will never understand how money I made
because of my friendly smile and outgoing attitude, or even good luck,
(that ultimately cost him absolutely nothing) made it okay for him to
pay me less, or in Michael’s case, not at all.
The bar has been set so low here that employees are content with the
compensation and treatment they are given. When I started training at
the first restaurant I was hired at in Texas, I was appalled at the
wages and lack of benefits (yes, a free meal at the end of your shift is
apparently too big a cost for employers in this state). My co-trainees
were ecstatic because we got to share some food at the end of a training
session. They seemed to think the 50% off we would soon be receiving was
a steal, but I knew better. At other restaurant jobs in more fortunate
parts of this country, I was given a free meal for every shift I worked
(that means two meals if you work a double). Here, I’ve been lucky to
get a discount (50% off on full priced dinner menu ONLY, not lunch, not
seafood, is pretty standard). Something as simple and cheap (to an
employer) as free food goes a long way in my book. Making a decent
minimum wage goes even further.
The real benefits of restaurant work, the real reasons why I used to
enjoy it, are as follows: going home with cash in your pocket, short
shifts, a flexible schedule, and free food. These are the only things
that could possibly make a job so hard and stressful worthwhile. Yet, in
Texas, not a single one of these things is on the menu.
Servers in this state will put up with a lot. Turnover is high
everywhere, and it’s no wonder. These people are struggling to survive
on tips. Tips are supposed to be the icing on the cake for a hard job
well done. Tips are never guaranteed. Tips must be split and divided.
Tips are never enough. I just don’t get why business owners have been
given the gift of (almost) free labor, and why the people doing all the
work don’t seem to mind.