There is a new fight brewing between the owner and worker classes – and the owners aren’t winning.
Over the last couple of weeks, we have seen article after article from local media in which restaurant and other business owners are boo-hooing because nobody wants to work for them. According to these business owners, the problem is that people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic are receiving an “extra” $300 a week in unemployment benefits. Just for the record, the max unemployment benefit a person can receive is $456 a week – but no more than 50% of your highest paid week, still right at poverty level for a family of 4. Even with $300 on top of that, it is not enough to make it. Many people’s regular benefits have run out, so all they are receiving is the $300 a week. $1200 a month. That doesn’t even cover rent at most places.
Not once have any of the local media interviewed any workers to see why they don’t want to work at these businesses. In this article, Phil Murante of Big Fred’s (Nebraska State Treasurer, John Murante, was the former President of Big Fred’s so I presume this is a relative) claims they have done “everything they can” and still are unable to hire and keep staff.
But have they really done everything they can?
Here is a job description from Big Freds:
This job, among other things, requires workers to be able to work in a “high-stress, high volume, and rapidly changing atmosphere”, they must be able to stand on their feet for an entire shift, they are responsible for cleaning and sanitizing the dining room, they must provide their own “reliable” transportation, and they must be able to be trusted with “trade secrets” … all for $2.15 an hour.
Another restaurant complaining that nobody wants to work for them is Wheatfields.
In addition to owner Ron Popp being a COVID-denier and religious extremist who puts anti-abortion messages right on his menus, he was also the subject of a class action lawsuit for wage theft in 2012 that was signed on to by 37 former Wheatfields employees. An employee noticed their paycheck was not adding up to their hours worked and started keeping track. From the KETV story linked above: “According to court documents, the allegations amount to “unlawful deductions” from wages, failure to pay the federal minimum wage, unlawful appropriation of tip money, and for taking pictures of a Wheatfields manager allegedly altering an employee’s work hours in the restaurant’s payroll system database.”
I can’t imagine why they are having trouble finding people to work for them. Can you?
All of these restaurants claim servers can make anywhere from $15-$50 an hour on this $2.13 an hour because of tips. Depending on the restaurant, of course this is possible, but not for every hour worked. Servers may make that much on busy Friday and Saturday nights or during a lunch rush, but it is in no way guaranteed, and no worker makes that much for every hour worked. Because income tax is owed on all dollars made, wages + tips, the government is taking deductions on both the $2.13 an hour AND on tips that don’t show up in the paycheck. The only place they can take these deductions from is the paycheck. Because of this, it is possible for servers to get a $0 paycheck every pay period because of these deductions. Say you are a server who makes $30K a year. You will owe 7.5% of that amount to social security, plus your tax rate to your state, plus your tax rate to federal, plus whatever else you might have taken out (retirement or insurance, if that is offered at the workplace which it probably is not). Assume you have no benefits. So on $30K, that is at least $5K in deductions. At full time, $2.13 per hour, your total paycheck for the YEAR is only around $4K. Less than your deductions.
The only guaranteed pay servers receive is in the paycheck. For many that means there is $0 in guaranteed income week to week. Couple that with the regular practice of “cutting” staff when it’s not busy in the restaurant and it quickly becomes clear why this would not be the first choice of job for someone who actually has bills to pay.
But enough from me, I have never been a server (honestly because it always seemed like too much work – anyone who calls service industry work “unskilled labor” probably spends all day sitting at a desk replying to emails with bitmojis). Let’s hear from local workers who submitted their stories to us. These are printed with permission.
“I make 7.50 an hour as a waitress and sometimes tips don’t compensate for my 60 dollar and under paychecks.”
“I remember being a server 20 years ago and not making ends meet until I took a third job. That was when I quit serving and started cooking. *surprise* it wasn’t more money, it was just steadier. The last time I worked in a restaurant they thought I should be honored to get $12 an hour with zero control of my schedule, zero benefits, no breaks, and a lengthy meeting about how I need to “suck less” at work after the doc found two slipped disks. I explained I would suck less when my boss drank less on the job. When I caught him sneaking rumplemints in the big event hall, I didn’t come back. Now that I know Nebraska has ZERO laws protecting workers from any length of shift without a break, I will never go back. When you cook downtown on a football Saturday, you can legally be required to work a 16 hours shift without a single break. This isn’t as common as it used to be, but I know multiple places that require a shift to be over 8 hours before you’re entitled to anything over one 15 minute break.”
“At the McDonald’s off of 72nd and Blondo they constantly have only 3-4 people working the entire restaurant from 12 am to 4 am on weekends, we are getting pushed to the max without any change in sight. Darmody Management has done nothing to improve conditions other than offer a 70 cent to dollar raise for people who can open their availability to all the time. WE ARE MAKING MORE SALES FROM 12 AM TO 4 AM FROM DRUNKS ALONE THEN WE MADE HALF OF THE EVENING! Me, along with everyone working the grills fryers or table (which is honestly just 3 people) are getting fucking sick of being treated like tools. We have had 4 shifts in the past week that have been critically understaffed, one person is issued to make a full screen of food as the entire restaurant is beeping in chaos and another frantically attempts to even keep up our stock, running from grills to fryer to the oven to the walk in (ALL OF WHICH HAS ZERO SLIP MATS!) you cannot walk in that place without mimicking a penguin. The conditions are fucking unacceptable and we deserve more”
And what about the bartenders? They must have it better, right? Nope. Submitted by a local bartender:
“Bartender of 10+ years, pre covid was working 4 guaranteed shifts a week, usually picking up a 5th or 6th. Decent tips. Dropped to 2 guaranteed shifts after covid, people were combative about masks and other distancing measures, dropped to server min ($2.13/hr?) after a decade of raises, lost healthcare, tips went below 1/3 what they used to. Changed industries. Thumbs up. Love the energy of elkhorn bros calling me a pussy for wearing a mask while working and then stiffing me on $62 of crown and cokes. ‘Merica”
“I’m tired of hearing people talk about laziness. There’s a lot more to cover. From experience at a few different spots I’ll say splitting tips both before and during the pandemic has been a good thing if done properly. Restaurant owners use tip splitting to weasel managers out of a decent salary sometimes, which is super unfair for everyone involved. But otherwise, tip sharing prevents favoritism/competition for livelihood, so that’s nice. The main thing I’ve noticed is people in food service at any level are expected to be fully dedicated to their jobs in a weird way that neglects personal needs. Getting a day off is nearly impossible and if you want extended time off you’re practically shamed for it. Also, since labor IS expensive, $5/hr is the best server wage I’ve seen personally so far. All my checks are $0 which means, really, 100% of my income is COMPLETELY uncertain. I think that’s the main reason why people won’t come back to work. Also, from just talking to industry buddies about last year as a whole, it seems like most of us are recentering our lives around the people we love and filling our lives with experiences. Working at a restaurant generally doesn’t allow that, it’s kinda just the culture of it. And I don’t even want to get started about diner ettiquette over the last year… it’s never been easy but people have been absolutely unbearable. The expectations, the entitlement, the subhuman behavior they bring into public spaces & shove into our faces. It’s all so emotionally exhausting, then you factor in restaurant owner anxiety and attitude coming from up above? I support restaurant industry pros finding new things to do. Anyway, sorry for the long rant. But it’s disappointing watching how easy it is for people to shit on service industry workers, the same workers who have literally always been there for them.”
Zoe Olsen of the Nebraska Restaurant Association thinks the solution is “immigration reform”, presumably because immigrants will work for whatever paltry sum they are offered because we make it so damn difficult to be an immigrant in this country, and especially in this state. Nebraska is the only state that did not extend unemployment benefits to DACA recipients during the (ongoing) pandemic.
The pandemic has created a worker shortage. Nebraska is not the exception to this rule. This state is currently sitting at 2.9% unemployment rate and most economists would put full employment at a rate in the 4% unemployment range to account for natural attrition and job movement. People aren’t lazy and sitting at home – they are working somewhere, just not for shitty employers. So while it is true, we need more immigrants to fill all the jobs, that is not the only solution.
Of course the real solution is to make the work desirable to workers. This starts with paying a living wage, but it doesn’t end there. Provide safe working conditions, provide reasonable management and expectations, and treat employees with the respect that they deserve as a human being. It is just basic supply and demand and it’s only a problem for businesses now because the wrong people are winning.
We stand in solidarity with the workers across the country striking for livable wages today.