The service industry in Ontario is shady as eff and I’m hoping Ontario’s new labour legislation will help that.
I got my first bar job at 18.
I papered the town with resumes in April and heard nothing back, so I went backpacking around Greece for a month. The day after my return a local pub called me in for an interview. One of the only instances of career-serendipitousness in my life.
I walked in, the manager looked me up and down and said “You’re hired”. My resume didn’t matter, only my tits did, but that’s a different type of shady shit happening in the industry that we will not be discussing today.
Instead we’re here to talk about the serious labour violations that routinely go on in an industry largely run by small-business owners dealing with tight margins. (The landscape is different in chain-restuarants.)
I’ve worked a variety of Toronto resos/bars in various front-of-the house positions, from hostess to waitress to bartender. I’m not afraid to call out any of these places because I don’t work in the industry anymore. Last year, I filed a claim against my previous employer, a popular Toronto bar, for violating the Employer Standards Act, and won. I encourage everyone experiencing any violations to do the same. The industry won’t change unless those working in it push back.
That being said, I enjoyed my time in the service industry. The physicality was the perfect foil to writing, and it beat the hell out of working in the mall. I loved meeting new people, getting a workout every day and bonding with coworkers.
My attitude towards my job was summed up by the fabulous Freya Beauchamp in Witches of East End.
I like being a bartender. I’m good at it. I bring joy and drunkenness to people in need
But there’s a major dark side.
Because it’s considered a “fun” and low-skill industry, a ton of illegal or should-be-illegal labour violations go on that are completely ignored because employees are too scared to rock the boat because they know they’ll be fired the second they complain and be replaced in a hot minute with the next busty 19 year-old. Or an Irish person on a work-visa, as is increasingly the case in Toronto.
Employees almost always suck it up because:
A. They’re usually making more than minimum wage
B. Violations are “routine” in the industry so it’s not better at elsewhere
C. They’re young, and often female and it’s hard to stand up to a manager when you’ve been socialized not to
D. They have no idea that their labour rights have been violated
Myth: Server bartenders make a ton of cash so they should suck it up
On specific places and specific nights you can make a lot of cash and there are many servers/bartenders raking it in. But that’s the minority, and most of them are professional waiters with a ton of experience, are really hot or just got lucky. Almost all servers/bartenders do make more than minimum wage, which is great. But, to make any sort of “good” living you have to:
A. Get a job at a thriving restaurant/ bar
B. Get good shifts, which are extremely competitive
C. Consistently get those shifts. You may make a ton of cash on Friday night, but that’s only one shift a week. The three others you have you’re barely making above minimum wage.
Contrary to popular belief, the majority of servers/bartenders work at places where sales are low and customers are shitty tippers. Either way, they’re working their ass off, on their feet for hours and hours a day and dealing with a variety of super annoying and super demanding people. Whatever they are earning, they’re working for it. Hard.
And even if servers/bartenders were raking it in, that doesn’t excuse any of the following labour violations. Why would it? You cannot agree to sign your rights away in Ontario.
8 shady labour violations that Ontario servers and bartenders deal with:
1. Unpaid trial shifts
We live in a capitalistic country. We labour for wages. There’s no such thing as unpaid labour. That’s called volunteering or slavery. My previous manager would hire really inexperienced and foreign girls (never males), convince them he was doing them a favour, and they were so grateful that they agreed to be trained unpaid. And not for one or two hours, but for two or three shifts.
2. Tipping out the house
Not sure if the general public realizes that servers don’t get to keep all their tips. They have to tip out a percentage of their sales to the hostesses, bartenders, food runners, bussers, kitchen and….the house. The house is the owner or manager of the restaurant.
That means if you don’t tip your server properly, they are literally paying for you to eat, since the percentage you tip out is based on sales not tips received. So please, don’t be that person.
A tip-out can be from 2%-5%.
That means a server selling $1000 worth of food and getting 15% in tips would earn $150. But she has to tip other people $50 of that, including some to the owner, leaving her with $100 to go home with.
It makes sense to tip-out your fellow employees for helping you out, but it’s disgusting that owners of these businesses are taking a cut as well. They should be embarrassed. They are already profiting from the business, as well as generally doing as much as they can to get the most possible work out of their employees for the lowest possible price.
A new law passed in 2016 has put some restrictions on this. Owners, however, can still take employees tips if they own the business and are doing some of the work.
3. Paying for walkouts
If a customer walks out, the sever/bartender can be on the hook. I had to pay for a $20 pitcher once because the party I was serving got too wasted and left. Another server I worked with once had to pay $130 for a party that just disappeared. Assholes. But the bigger asshole was my place of work, The Madison Avenue Pub, (yes…that Maddy) who made me pay for it.
**Update: A new law passed in 2016 has made this illegal!
4. Getting paid to the quarter that’s most advantageous to the employer
If you punch in a computer system at 5:05 p.m, you don’t start getting paid until 5:15 p.m. However, if you clock out at 1.40 a.m, you only get paid until 1:30.
5. Managers clock you out before your shift is over
Work until 3 a.m? Too bad, you only get paid until 2:15 a.m.
Another place I worked at made you come in at 10:30 am for the day shifts to clean, but would only start paying you at 11 am.
Usually, the excuse for this is “you took a break”. Of course, however, you must legally be paid for breaks. Also, no one takes a break. See #6.
6. No breaks
It’s not seemly to be sitting when you’re working. Sitting to eat is a luxury when you’re working at a reso/bar. I had a manager once tell me I wasn’t allowed to sit to do roll-ups. Why, I don’t know, it was a pub, not the Ritz.
Regardless, that attitude means you’re usually standing between 4-10 hours, with no breaks.
Managers will always let you eat, but “eating” usually consists of ordering food, taking two bites, serving a table, taking another bite, delivering a drink, taking three bites, getting a rush and then having your food accidentally thrown out by bussers. In addition, since, you can never leave the premises, this can’t even legally be considered a meal break and you must be paid for this time. Therefore, servers should certainly, at least get paid for the ENTIRE time they’re at work.
The guide to work breaks in Ontario that everyone ignores actually says that you can’t work for more than five hours in a row without getting a 30-minute eating break. Even if the employer pays for meal breaks, the employee must be free from work in order for the time to be considered a meal break.
Ever wonder why so many servers/bartenders smoke? Because it’s almost impossible to get an actual break, so they start smoking just to get 5 minutes to be allowed to leave the premises and sit down.
If they don’t start smoking, they’ll start pretending to.
A coworker once sat down on a chair and the manager came up to her and told her to get up. She mimed blowing a cigarette and said “I’m on a smoke break.”
7. If your till is under, you pay the difference; if it’s over, it goes to the house
Here’s how cash works behind the bar: You start your shift with a float, of let’s say, $300. You count it immediately to make sure its accurate. At the end of the night, you count your till, and everything over $300, you give to the house. That’s presumably how much you made in sales.
But you don’t actually know how much you made in sales, since the manager hides that information from you.
If the amount you give is accurate, no one says anything. But if the amount you give is under the sales amount, you have to pay that from your tips. Fine. You screwed up, maybe you gave someone too much change. Fair enough.
But what happens when you’re over the sales amount? Do you then get that back? No. That goes to the house, even though you’re almost always “over” because you accidentally left your tips in the till!
(When you get a tip on a credit card you’re supposed to take out the tip portion immediately, but it’s easy to mess this up in a high-pressure environment or when more than one person is working a till)
So the result is always advantageous to the house.
8. A lower minimum wage
I don’t necessarily mind this, except I think it’s kind of stupid. Why can’t we be paid the real minimum wage and also get tips? I understand that it’s based on the theory that tips are part of the economics of the industry, but a lot of customers, especially tourists, students and certain ethnic groups that shall not be named, don’t tip the full 15%.
It’s also pretty unfair for front-of-the-house service workers. Bussers, food runners and hostesses get paid the full minimum wage AND get tipped out by liquor servers who are making less than minimum wage.
So, is the Ontario’s governments new employment and labour laws going to fix any of this? No. Because these rules aren’t enforced and employees are still too scared to report them.