“I’ve worked in the restaurant industry for 26 years. Right now I work at an Italian restaurant as what I guess you’d call a kitchen manager position, but it’s pretty informal.
Four days a week I go to Cash & Carry to get all the supplies for that day — I fill up my jeep with supplies, I bring the supplies in, I put it away, do the day’s prep, work the day shift, work the night shift, and close the restaurant. All of the days I work are double shifts.
Basically I’m the supervisor all my day shifts, and one of my nights. Three of the other nights the owner is there managing the night shift. Any time the owner’s not there I’m managing the kitchen staff.
I work twelve to fifteen hours a day, four days a week and get paid $36,000 in salary, plus tips. The tips are probably putting me close to $40,000 a year. Which used to sound like a lot to me! But I’m barely not on assistance right now. I have no problem with those programs, I’ve used them, but it’s just a form of corporate subsidy. Obviously there’s a problem there when taxpayers are subsidizing corporations because they aren’t paying their employees enough.
Right now I don’t have a cell phone. I don’t have cable. I pay rent and groceries and that’s what I can afford. My kids graduated high school and are out of the house, so that was at least one thing that my income did.
Meanwhile the owner usually works 24 hours a week, about half as much as me. Right now he’s working more hours because one of the kitchen guys got another job, and he hasn’t been able to get someone who can cover it. It’s skilled work so it’s harder to find someone, and it’s located out of town so a lot of people don’t want to drive out to where it’s at. But he’ll absolutely go back to 24 hours or the least amount possible once he trains someone. That’s his goal, to have a path of income where everyone else works and you get lots of money.
I didn’t complain about the salary or the hours over the years because I thought even though I’m working more than I want, I thought had an opportunity to buy this business because that’s what he had told me. But then about a year and a half ago I checked in with him about the plan to sell me the restaurant and he said maybe he was going to sell it to his step daughter. When I started working there she was just a little kid!
So I was sort of screwed. Either you trust someone or you don’t, and I did, and that ended up being a bad idea. I counted the hours I put in and it’s like 15-20,000 total. That’s a lot of time to devote to a restaurant. I passed up other opportunities because I thought I was in a position to own my own restaurant and work 24 hours a week too.
Now I’m 43, turning 44. It doesn’t sound very old, but working these kinds of hours, you can’t do it forever. I’m reaching the end of my ability to work that pace.
I’m on my feet for 12-14 hours a day, and I don’t get more than a cumulative 20 minutes of breaks in a 14 hour shift. I haven’t gotten an hour-long break in 8 years. I’ve never gotten a 15 minute break! A 5 minute break to smoke a cigarette and i’m back to work.
I was working like that because I thought was going to own the business. Without that, it’s not sustainable physically. I can’t just keep doing it, it’s just too hard on my body. I’m still interested in owning a restaurant, I just don’t have the capital to do it. I thought I was paying my dues.
When you’re working 50+ hours a week you also don’t see your family as much as you want to. I didn’t see my mother for a couple years, and she lives in Oregon. With gas money and time I just haven’t been able to do it much.
Really I haven’t been about anything but my job for 8 years. When I did have a life, I was a musician, a singer-songwriter. Cooking is just one of the jobs I got when I was going to college. I never finished my degree. I got married, tried to do tattoo work, then went back into the restaurant industry because the tattoo industry wasn’t very steady — real feast and famine. And I needed to have a steady paycheck.
There’s a minimum level of money you have to make just to survive, and I’m right about there. I can afford to pay rent on a very modest duplex. We do a lot of cooking ourselves since we’re both cooks, one healthcare payment, and that’s it. Making less is not really an option.
And I don’t think i can reiterate this enough: it’s not the hours, it’s the necessity to work so many hours because the pay is so low. Minimum wage should be at least $15, and then anything over 40 hours should be overtime. The first step is making it actually illegal to make people work over 40 hours without paying them.
Right now it just seems like getting paid a salary is a matter of convenience for somebody. I want $15 and overtime pay.”
—Travis M., kitchen manager, Bellingham