21-years-old and homeless for three weeks, Angel was born and raised in New Jersey. Two years ago, she came to Philadelphia and found work as a bartender at Beau Monde, an upscale French restaurant that's particularly popular among the gay crowd. Above Beau Monde is L'etage, a dance club with the same owner. With business rather slow at Beau Monde, there weren’t much tips, so Angel moved to Cantina Los Caballitos. Starting as a hostess, she eventually became one of four managers. Her peak salary was $1,600 a month, but that's before tax. With rents so high in Philly, Angel opted to pay $350 for a room in a house she shared with six people, "All of my co-workers were paying around $500 a month, but none of them had their own space. They were all sharing."
I told Angel that twenty years ago, I had my own apartment in Center City for just $350 a month. Her eyes widened, “That’s unbelievable!” The bank-inflated housing bubble made housing unaffordable for many poor people.
At Cantina Los Caballitos, workplace politics was very complicated, Angel said, because managers, bartenders and servers slept with each other, “If a bartender was sleeping with a server, a female manager would get pissed off and try to get even.”
“Because she wanted to sleep with him?”
“Yeah, because she wanted to sleep with him. There was a lot of corruption there,” meaning sexual harrasment or retaliation.
The most insidious abuse of power, however, was how employees were discarded, “In the bar and restaurant business, they will overhire, then get rid of whoever they don’t like, but without firing them. If they find someone that they like more than you, they’ll keep it hush hush and find ways to push you out, and they will do this with any position. It’s not just with a server or kitchen worker, they will also do this with a manager.
They do not want to give fired employees unemployment. They will find any way of going around paying people unemployment. So if they want to do a mass firing, they’ll cut people’s schedules. They’ll cut their hours. For people they want to get rid of, they’ll just give them one or two shifts a week. This usually forces people to quit, because they’re so broke. This way, they don’t have to fire ten people and pay unemployment.”
Long time employees also expect periodic raises, so by forcing them out, owners save money. It’s very passive aggressive, these tactics, “They will give you the shittiest shifts or they can cite you for every little mistake, every little thing that you do that they can make into an issue. What they did to me was, they’d suddenly email me and say, ‘You’re not in charge of that anymore. Why don’t you do this,’ then they’d give me these very childish tasks, these very boring tasks, and I was like, ‘Why am I doing this if I’m the manager?’ They’d email me and say, ‘Oh, you don’t have to come in today.’ They phrased it in such a way that you’re like, am I being rewarded with some time off? They kind of fucked with your head a little bit, so you’d think, maybe I’m being rewarded here, but at the end of the month, you’re like, holy shit, I hardly worked at all. So they push you off. Holy shit, you know, they basically fired me, but they didn’t do it outright, but only in the most passive aggressive way.”
From talking to workers at other restaurants and bars, Angel found out these nasty practices are very common, “This is definitely going on, but no one talks about it.”
As long as there is a surfeit of workers, these abuses will continue, I’m afraid, and it will only get much worse, since the economy isn’t getting any better. Among Angel’s coworkers were people who had been in law schools.