Serving staff are expected to be hospitable and accommodating while regularly missing breaks and working longer hours than any other industry. Biz and Tech Editor Sarah Del Giallo reports
While you’re sitting comfortably in a restaurant, the service will cross your mind. Maybe the drinks took too long to arrive or your appetizer was missing a sauce. But when your server arrives with your meal, smiling and asking if there’s anything else they can get you, your mind turns to your food.
When you finally asses that tip, you might want to consider that your server hasn’t eaten for the last eight hours or so.
Virginia Connors, 19, is a second-year child and youth care student at Ryerson. She works part time as a waitress at Joey at the Eaton Centre.
She regularly goes four to seven hours without a break in the one-inch heels that are a mandatory part of her uniform.
“It’s too busy during the night shifts to take a break,” said Connors.
Connors usually chooses to skip her breaks to avoid losing her tables to another server.
“They don’t offer breaks, you just know that you’re entitled to them. I’ve gone almost 10 hours without a break, and that’s at my discretion,” she said. “While I’m working I don’t notice it so much, as compared to after work and I realize I haven’t eaten — then I’m tired.”
According to Ontario’s employment standards act, an employee is to work no more than five hours straight without a break of at least 30 minutes.
Jennifer Savage at the Ministry of Labour said, “It’s not the choice of the employee, it’s law.”
If employees aren’t getting their minimum 30-minute breaks, the employer can be fined
“The employer has to ensure they [take their break].”
The inability to take proper breaks is a common problem for servers. Natalie Rineshore* is a Ryerson student who works in a sports bar on King Street West.
“If it is a busy night, like a 14- hour shift, you really don’t get a break unless you plan ahead and take one at 4 o’clock before the 5 o’clock rush.”
But Rineshore’s main concern isn’t breaks — it’s the required uniforms.
For Connors at Joey, the heels are a hindrance, but her uniform is otherwise comfortable as long as the air conditioning isn’t too cold.
But Rineshore is more upset by her company’s dress code.
“Low cut shirt, very low cut, to the point where bra is exposed. The cup of the bra, and the wire, everything’s exposed. And mini skirts and knee high boots,” she said.
Rineshore said the knee high boots need to have at least a one and a half to two inch heel.
According to Rineshore, some guests don’t like the uniforms and have filled out comment cards about how revealing they are. One guest wrote an online review saying the bar was more akin to “an upscale gentlemen’s club.”
“Our managers are all men. So obviously they’re enjoying it and it’s helping to promote the image of the restaurant that they want, but these comment cards have been filled out, handed to a manager, the manager reads them, laughs at them, rips them up and throws them in the garbage,” said Rineshore.
“So they don’t get sent to corporate. No one finds out about this. And even if they did get sent to corporate, who knows what they would do about it,” she said. “People have said we make Hooters look like Chuck E Cheese’s.”
Regardless of the clothing, Rineshore’s main concern is the boots.
“I had to host on the patio in boots, and it was 30 degrees and my legs are sweating, and they get mad if you have a cup of water on the host stand, because they don’t want that image to be portrayed of you just sitting and drinking and socializing,” she said.
“They want you to look like you’re professional. But I’m sweating in my boots, literally.”
Rineshore said people have wiped out on the restaurant’s cement floor which has very little friction.
“People could get injured just by falling,” she said. “Waiting hot plates? You could burn a guest.”
Rineshore said the serving staff of about 30 employs only two men and one male bartender. The male servers are not required to wear equally provocative uniforms.
Jennifer Ramsay is the communications coordinator for the human rights legal support centre.
“If only the women are being asked to dress provocatively, then that could be [discriminatory],” she said
There have been legal cases throughout Canada of female employees fighting against revealing uniforms. The 1982 Ontario case of Ballentyne v. Molly N’ Me Tavern favoured Susan Ballentyne who was offered a serving job with a topless dress code. A 1997 case in Quebec favoured female employees when the establishment imposed a uniform of short skirts, tight tops and high heels, similar to the uniforms at Rineshore’s restaurant.
But the human rights commision doesn’t take action against offensive dress codes without a complaint.
“If the employer could argue that it’s absolutely necessary for them to wear this uniform then that’s that,” said Ramsay. But she said she finds it difficult to believe an employer could argue that successfully.
Rineshore said her employers want to give the image of the female servers looking put-together and “dolled up” to attract a specific clientele.
“They want to attract the men in suits. Because men in suits goes with beer, goes with chicken wings, goes with [girls] and tits,” she said.
Kristine Norris, 20, is a fourth- year dance student who was a waitress at Cedarhill Golf and Country Club in Ottawa in 2009.
Once, while setting up for a banquet, she was asked to set up a nine foot table by herself. It fell on her toe as she tried to take it down.
She had to ice her foot for about 45 minutes, and she said no report was filed for her injury.
While that was her only instance of getting hurt at work, like her fellow servers, she often went without her breaks.
“I would work 14-hour shifts on the hot dog cart … I couldn’t go to the washroom ever, because I had a cash box,” she said.
In order to go to the bathroom, she would wait for the beverage cart worker to drive over and watch her station, but that wasn’t often.
When Norris was working weddings, she would start at 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. and work until 4 a.m. if she was closing. She would get one 30 -minute break if she was lucky.
She was warned about the hours and the breaks when she applied for the job, but she took the position anyway.
“Anytime you’re in an interview you’re just going to [nod] your head and say yes because you want a paycheque at the end of the day,” said Norris.
*names have been changed