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Working For Free


rdailey
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This issue was brought up on another thread, but I wanted to start a new one to find out what the deal is. Although I do not work in a professional kitchen, I hear all the time about young upstarts doing stages for high-end restaurants. Nearly always, the restaurant pays the worker in "experience" in lieu of actual compensation.

I asked a good friend, who is an employment lawyer here in California, and he told me that according to state law it is a misdameanor to retain uncompensated "volunteers", unless they are students that are getting credit through a bona fide educational institution or volunteering for non-profit companies or religious groups.

I would think that this would be a huge legal risk for restaurants that have non-students stage.

How often do non-students stage for prestigious restaurants? Has anyone heard of restaurants being sued by someone that did a stage and they didn't get to stay on full-time or because they were disgruntled for some other reason?

Just curious since I am guilty of breaking this law myself... :blink:

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Nearly all of the higher-end restaurants require an interested applicant to stage for a few days. This is more of a curtistity to the appliciant than it is to the restaurant in that during those days that you are staging you really get to see what the restaurant is about. You might find that it is not a good fit between you and the restaurant. Maybe you don't like how they take care of their walk-in or maybe you do not like enviorment. You get a sense for their philosophy on cooking by speaking with the chef at the end of the night and talking to some of the cooks. And if you decide that it is not a good match then you just saved yourself from a lot of trouble. Arguably, at your last place of employment you worked your way up the ladder in the year or two that you have been there gaining the chef's respect and loyality. Why would you want to throw that away for something that you don't even like?

Andrew Dorenburg writes in, "Becoming a Chef" that Alfred Portale, the chef at Gotham Bar & Grill replaced Daniel Boulud as sous chef at the Polo at the Westbury Hotel in New York. He did not stage one day before accepting the position. He was fired after 4 months at the Polo, because it was not a good fit between him and the chef. This Alfred Portale, one of the best chefs in modern American cuising, I think that story shows the importance that staging has.

I have never heard of a restaurant getting sued. I think it is a common practice in the kitchen underbelly and to be expected coming in.

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Restaurants have their own way of rules and regulations anyway. Someone Staging a few days is the least offensive thing that goes on. I've worked in corporate worlds and in kitchens, and I for one can say I wish that I was allowed to Stage in the corporate world before I took a few of my jobs, because I definitely wouldn't have taken some of those jobs.

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There isn't usually any guarantee one will have a position waiting after a stage. It shouldn't be expected and isn't promised. Are you at all familiar with Ecole des Chefs? For a substantial fee, an amateur cook can get to work for a famous chef in a top kichen in Europe or the US. That includes Gary Danko and Joachim Splichal in California. Can they get around the law by charging, so you're no longer a volunteer? :biggrin:

It's also not an uncommon practice for a chef at one restaurant to voluteer to work in another restaurant for a short period to get some additional experience. I'm not defending the practice, but it's widespread in the industry and offers an opportunity for someone to get experience in a kitchen that is not likely going to pay that person to work there. That doesn't mean it's not generally an exploitive practice, but if someone begs Thomas Keller for the chance to work for nothing for a few months and then turns around and sues him, that guy is probably never going to work in any important restaurant or get any sympathy in the industry and my guess is that Keller is not spending time looking for unskilled labor to work for nothing in the French Laundry.

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I think I'm really trying to understand why a restaurant would take on the liability of unpaid workers. Not only that, but it is a misdamenor which would open retaurants up to excessive fines. If the stages last only a week or two, why wouldn't a reputable restaurant at least pay minimum wage? I would think this would eliminate any liability.

As well, if a stage was not going well, the restaurant could terminate the employee or the employee could leave and find another restaurant.

Just saying that restaurants have their "own rules" or the notion that a prominent chef will say "you'll never work in this town again" does not exempt them from the law.

Here is a example of a disgruntled former employee of Joachim Splichal, who is upset about time-shaving wants back pay and investigations. So it does happen...

Splichal's labor issues

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I agree that the practice of unpaid staiges should be cracked down upon otherwise the practice will continue to manifest in the top restaurants. It is unfortunate for young cooks who cannot afford to work for free due to rent requirements, car, student loans, etc. Only the kids with wealthy parents get the great opportunites in top kitchens. The reason the French Laundry can be as perfect as it is is due the the plethora of help. And I am sure it is hard to say no to a kid who is willing to ANYTHING just to observe the kitchen. Keller doesn't even have to learn their name, just hand them a crate of favas to peel and direct them to a large pot of salted, boiling water.

I think nothing of the practice of a one or two night staige in lieu of hiring a cook or applying as a cook. I think every profession would benefit from this. But I steadfast disagree with long-term unpaid staiges. There are people who fought hard and died during the labor movement just to get a decent wage and schedule. Kitchens and chefs around this country piss on those ideals. I worked 80 hours a week for a very well known chef for six months and took home maybe $360 a week. Am I a better cook, yes, but bitter and not fond of the experience. But learned, most importantly, how not to treat my brigade.

It is amazing how we trample over the labor and immigration laws in the restaurant industry. And it is amazing how we worship the work ethic of the Latin American workers, but let me remind everyone, they never work a minute they are not getting paid for.

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When you are looking to get into restaurant work with no experience, I suggested working for free in a previous post. But not for a week or two. I worked for free for 8 months. 2 weeks isn't enough time to know if you want to give up a normal life for cooking. After that amount of time, I was treated like a normal employee and when I asked to be paid, I was hired. So the restaurant gets an employee to work for free and you get invaluable experience. But after only 2 weeks, I wasn't cooking. Just observing really. So the restaurant isn't worried about being sued since you are just "hanging out" and are not working. Once they feel comfortable with you and you with them, then maybe you can peel some potatoes. But you won't be "cooking" for some time. Unfortunately, the restaurant world still has an old school mentality when it comes to employment law. I was working 70 hrs a week in one place and only getting paid for 40. There is a sense of fear to report them because you don't want to be "blacklisted". It's funny how an industry can be so glamourized in the media and such, but actually piss on the people that hold it together. It's absolutely amazing.

Edited by snoop (log)
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  • 2 months later...

I just came across this thread. If you haven't seen it yet, there's a great blog at RestaurantSlave which deals with these issues.

There's also some commentary throughout the thread as to whether it was right/cool for the owner to handle the situation as he did.

~Tad

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As a well seasoned pastry chef i think that stagiere possitions in high end kitchens are a must. The time a stge spends in a prospective restaurant is the best way for employers to evaluate a possible employees skill level and competence as well as their personality. For the stagiere the stage allows him or her to evaluate the restaurant, the chefs, kitchen, other employees, and the final product. Working in the big four in nyc has taught me to never even consider taking a kitchen job without a three to four day stage period. I would never work in a house that didnt require at least a day stage period. Places that dont require a stage are saying to future employees that we dont really expect much from you as long as you have a pretty resumee.

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oh sure, any company would love for their prospective employees to staige, unpaid, to see how they fit in, etc.. Does anyone expect doctors to work for free a few months to see if they fit into a new hospital? Firemen? Police officers? Teachers? etc...........???????

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i think, going back to the original question, the main reason it can be considered illegal is with regard to accidents.

i'm not a lawyer, this is just my hypothesis. if an unpaid worker is injured while "on the job", they can sue more easily because they really weren't on the job.

if you're staging because you're "trying out" for an open position that's one thing; if you're staging because you're interested in learning something about restaurants that's another thing. the restaurant is more likely to be sued for loss of wages from the former rather than the latter who has only something to gain from the experience.

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i think, going back to the original question, the main reason it can be considered illegal is with regard to accidents.

i'm not a lawyer, this is just my hypothesis.  if an unpaid worker is injured while "on the job", they can sue more easily because they really weren't on the job.

if you're staging because you're "trying out" for an open position that's one thing; if you're staging because you're interested in learning something about restaurants that's another thing.  the restaurant is more likely to be sued for loss of wages from the former rather than the latter who has only something to gain from the experience.

Actually, around here it is impossible to collect any sort of workmen's comp if you are injured as an unofficial employee. Workman's comp insurance doesn't cover the employer for this type of employee. You have to get a lawyer and just plain sue them, and you don't have the money to do this if you're not working on the books, while (in many cases) a small business that does this is marginal, and doesn't have the deep pockets to cover the costs of your injury, let alone your legal expenses. Plus, the courts look down on somebody who is injured while working off the books, as though they got caught trying to get away with something and deserve what they got. So while theoretically, the business is open to unlimited liability, in practice, nothing ever happens.

I used to work in a business that had no employees outside of adults in the family, and when the labor inspector came through, he wanted to make sure that all the unpaid employees were adult members of the family, ie, co-owners. Using any unpaid labor is exploitation by this definition, even if you have convinced the workers that in some way it's for their own good.

So for a worker doing a genuine stage, not just under-the-table work, in case of an accident, the worker would end up paying for all his medical expenses (unless he tried to sue, which would pretty much end any chance of a career in the business), and the labor board would hit the establishment for a big fine for violating labor laws.

The state usually doesn't find out about violations unless there's a problem that brings it to their attention, though.

I think in many or most states, this is how the law is written, but enforcement may vary.

Imagine working for free (ok, for goodwill) for an extended period of time. You have no money to pay any of your bills, and your employer benefits greatly from your free labor. Then you have an accident, get hit with huge medical expenses, and can't work. You can't even complain, because then you'll never work in the business again.

This sounds exploitative to me.

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oh sure, any company would love for their prospective employees to staige, unpaid, to see how they fit in, etc..  Does anyone expect doctors to work for free a few months to see if they fit into a new hospital?  Firemen?  Police officers?  Teachers? etc...........???????

All those jobs require education and certification which the food industry doesn't. With the rise of culinary schools, perhaps certification is on the way, but it's not there yet. And for someone who can't go to cooking school, perhaps working for free on the side is a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Restaurants are hardly the only business where people work for free too. Any field that requires a certain skill-set yet lacks a codified training program will allow if not require people to start at the bottom and work their way up. And the bottom jobs are frequently unpaid. For example: motion picture production and photography. And academia.

Is it opportunity or exploitation? Depends on the person and the situation. Sometimes trading time for experience rather than money is a rational decision.

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Restaurants are hardly the only business where people work for free too.  Any field that requires a certain skill-set yet lacks a codified training program will allow if not require people to start at the bottom and work their way up.  And the bottom jobs are frequently unpaid.  For example:  motion picture production and photography.  And academia.

I'm not familiar with the movie industry, but I am with academia. What unpaid jobs are you referring to? Here instructors are paid per class taught, assistants per hour worked, and graduate students are given a stipend (and forgiven tuition) .

None of these are ever hired by the university where they are studying or teaching. It would be exploitative for the University that had no intention of hiring someone to work them unpaid for an extended period of time.

Besides being against the law.

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Katherine, I agree.

I think the point is that it is illegal having someone work for free, even if that person wants to and is benefitting through experience, unless it is an internship for college credits. It is my understanding that a lawyer can sue any business that hires unpaid workers "on behalf of the people". They don't even need the employee to bring the suit, just proof that they are doing it.

I find it surprising that restaurants, which usually can't afford liabilities such as this, would not offer young apprentices minimum wage and avoid the opportunity for trouble.

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I'm not familiar with the movie industry, but I am with academia. What unpaid jobs are you referring to? Here instructors are paid per class taught, assistants per hour worked, and graduate students are given a stipend (and forgiven tuition) .

None of these are ever hired by the university where they are studying or teaching. It would be exploitative for the University that had no intention of hiring someone to work them unpaid for an extended period of time.

When I was in grad school, there were only 5 paid TAships and to get one of those you pretty much had to TA some other class before. Whether or not you got independent study units for it was up to you. You might argue that 3 units is the same as getting paid, but it's not. Even the paid job only paid a token salary that came out to half of minimum wage if you included all the hours the job required. I TAed 5 classes; got paid for 2 and got units for 1. The others I did for the experience and it was worth it because all it cost me was time and time was what I had.

The whole internship system is a joke. Requiring people to be enrolled in college means that they're paying money for the privilege of working for no money. Is that fair? Why should someone who wants on the job training be forced into college with all the associated expenses if that's not what they want?

I teach part time at a community college now. In my beginning class, I have former students assist me with some of the hands-on instruction, mostly the mechanics of how to use the camera. The school has no money to pay them and I don't make enough to pay them out of my own pocket (except for a dinner). So, there's no pay, no chance of moving into a paid job, and they don't want units because then it will cost them money to help me out.

Is it immoral that they help me out? And help the students out? And allow me to accept many more people into the class than I would otherwise be able to take, thus helping the department and college out since our funding is in a large part enrollment based? Each person who does this does it because the costs (time) are outweighed by the benefits (the fun of being part of the department). They're adults and fully capable of deciding how to spend their time without the government getting involved.

I also sponsor the student organization even though I don't get paid extra for it. College regulations require faculty presence at on campus student events. I don't get paid for those days and nights either, but if I didn't do it, they wouldn't exist. Am I just an idiot? Or is there more do the job of college instructor than just what happens in class? For me, the benefits of having a (mostly) functional department where students have the opportunity to interact with each other outweighs the few nights a semester I give up.

But I guess I better worry now that some lawyer here will figure out where I teach and bring a suit "on behalf of the people" to stop the outrage of using unpaid labor.

Sometimes the law is an ass.

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I'm not familiar with the movie industry, but I am with academia. What unpaid jobs are you referring to? Here instructors are paid per class taught, assistants per hour worked, and graduate students are given a stipend (and forgiven tuition) .

None of these are ever hired by the university where they are studying or teaching. It would be exploitative for the University that had no intention of hiring someone to work them unpaid for an extended period of time.

When I was in grad school, there were only 5 paid TAships and to get one of those you pretty much had to TA some other class before. Whether or not you got independent study units for it was up to you. You might argue that 3 units is the same as getting paid, but it's not. Even the paid job only paid a token salary that came out to half of minimum wage if you included all the hours the job required. I TAed 5 classes; got paid for 2 and got units for 1. The others I did for the experience and it was worth it because all it cost me was time and time was what I had.

The whole internship system is a joke. Requiring people to be enrolled in college means that they're paying money for the privilege of working for no money. Is that fair? Why should someone who wants on the job training be forced into college with all the associated expenses if that's not what they want?

I teach part time at a community college now. In my beginning class, I have former students assist me with some of the hands-on instruction, mostly the mechanics of how to use the camera. The school has no money to pay them and I don't make enough to pay them out of my own pocket (except for a dinner). So, there's no pay, no chance of moving into a paid job, and they don't want units because then it will cost them money to help me out.

Is it immoral that they help me out? And help the students out? And allow me to accept many more people into the class than I would otherwise be able to take, thus helping the department and college out since our funding is in a large part enrollment based? Each person who does this does it because the costs (time) are outweighed by the benefits (the fun of being part of the department). They're adults and fully capable of deciding how to spend their time without the government getting involved.

I also sponsor the student organization even though I don't get paid extra for it. College regulations require faculty presence at on campus student events. I don't get paid for those days and nights either, but if I didn't do it, they wouldn't exist. Am I just an idiot? Or is there more do the job of college instructor than just what happens in class? For me, the benefits of having a (mostly) functional department where students have the opportunity to interact with each other outweighs the few nights a semester I give up.

But I guess I better worry now that some lawyer here will figure out where I teach and bring a suit "on behalf of the people" to stop the outrage of using unpaid labor.

Sometimes the law is an ass.

I once RA'd & TA'd but then my tuition wasamongst the highest in the country :sad: (this was before some of the folks here were out-of-their diapers --no offense intended ). I also had UROP folks work with me - an amazing concept :smile: Now, I discourage unpaid/credit-bearing interns to my managers because the time-and-effort that I and my engineers put (or had put in the past) was to no mutual good because many took the internship as easy way out of no-midterms-and-finals-plus-a-good-freebe-value proposition.

my .02euro :cool:

Edited by anil (log)

anil

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I'd be surprised if staging is acceptable in US restaurants affiliated with US chains (hotel or restaurant). Allowing somebody into your kitchen who isn't covered on your worker's comp, liability and bonding is a huge risk. For an independent place, it's the owner's or chef's call, I'd suppose.

Many things which used to be OK, aren't any more. A major NY chef-owner and maitre were terminated earlier this year after a botched sexual harassment complaint. Ten years ago, that might have been considered very "European."

I'd also suspect staging might be a problem in union represented restaurants. Crafts do not want people performing jobs for which they are not authorized

Apparently it's easier still to dictate the conversation and in effect, kill the conversation.

rancho gordo

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It's conditions like these that are leading grad students to unionize.

Grad students are whiners anyway. :wink:

So it's okay for someone to volunteer in a soup kitchen (non-profit), but it's not okay for someone to volunteer in a professional kitchen unless that person is paying money to attend college.

That's hypocrisy at its government regulated finest.

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So it's okay for someone to volunteer in a soup kitchen (non-profit), but it's not okay for someone to volunteer in a professional kitchen unless that person is paying money to attend college.

That's hypocrisy at its government regulated finest.

That's the law, yes.

Non-profit agencies are able to be classified as non-profits because they provide services that benefit the public in some way. That's why they are able to utilize vounteer labor. Free labor at for-profit businesses provides no benefit to the public at large, and questionable benefits to the individuals who have been convinced to work for free.

Actually, I think it's hypocritical for profit-making enterprises to pocket money from the free labor of unpaid workers by claiming that they were somehow providing intangible benefits equivalent to earning wages and getting benefits.

If you don't believe in labor laws, you don't. I do.

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  • 1 month later...

IMO, there are a couple of ways to look at it. A 2 or 3 day stint can be called an audition. No sweat, and not a bad idea. They will know in 2 days about their grasp of the basics.

If they want to do something longer, hire them as part time - only let them work 3 nights a week, and pay them minimum wage (plus meals). Now, the chef is learning something, a top end restaraunt should be able to afford a minimum wage worker, and the chef is getting something for his/her trouble. Plus dinner.

If the restaraunts are worried about scammers (Show up and cut themselves the first day and flie workmen's comp, etc.), make them an independent contractor. The restaraunt is not liable for injuries, taxes, or anything else other than an agreed upon price to pay for that person's services on a temporary basis.

Screw it. It's a Butterball.
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So it's okay for someone to volunteer in a soup kitchen (non-profit), but it's not okay for someone to volunteer in a professional kitchen unless that person is paying money to attend college.

That's hypocrisy at its government regulated finest.

That's the law, yes.

Non-profit agencies are able to be classified as non-profits because they provide services that benefit the public in some way. That's why they are able to utilize vounteer labor. Free labor at for-profit businesses provides no benefit to the public at large, and questionable benefits to the individuals who have been convinced to work for free.

Actually, I think it's hypocritical for profit-making enterprises to pocket money from the free labor of unpaid workers by claiming that they were somehow providing intangible benefits equivalent to earning wages and getting benefits.

If you don't believe in labor laws, you don't. I do.

You still haven't explained why if I pay (to enroll in college) I can work for free, but if I want to do the exact same thing on my own, it's wrong. Non-profits providing "public benefit" is a joke. You're basically arguing that working for free is exploitive of the individual to the point that the coercive power of the state must be used to prevent it from occuring unless the exploitation to the individual is being done in the name of some state-sanctioned greater social good. That's hypocrisy.

As is calling the benefits derived from working for a for-profit company "questionable." Isn't it up to the individual to decide whether the benefit of the experience outweighs the cost of working? People all across this country are working for free anyway, the question is whether or not their behavior should be considered criminal. You believe in labor laws, I believe in freedom.

I'm reminded here of one of my favorite quotes:

Behind every urge to save humanity lies the hidden urge to control.

And another one:

Sometimes the law is an ass.

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