Working for free

Doing Okay (Kind Of)

Since I turned 16, I have constantly been on the job search. It only took me a few months after my birthday to land my first job at Round Table Pizza. It was what you might call the sixteen-year-old’s dream job: free pizza and discounts. My second job in high school was just as good as the first. As a barista at Peet’s Coffee, I got a virtually unlimited supply of coffee, tea and pastries galore. I received tips at both places, and the work environments were overwhelmingly positive.

I didn’t realize how much I was taking for granted at my old jobs until Spring break of my freshman year. I got a rude awakening about what else was out there, especially in the non-corporate world.

My next mission was to find a restaurant job that would supply me with hefty tips for my small, student income. It wasn’t long before I wound up in one of the most popular brunch spots in Berkeley, sitting down for an impromptu interview. “Can you work this week? Come in on Thursday and Friday and work the whole day! Let’s see how you do.” Wow, that was easy.

I was scheduled for 8am on my first day, but I ended up arriving around 7am because I had to work around the AC Transit bus schedule. As soon as I showed up, I was put to work opening the store. “I was scheduled for 8am, do you think I’ll be getting paid for starting early?”

“Oh yeah, definitely! We’ll make sure you get paid for all of your hours, just keep track of them.” Phew. What a relief, after all, I wasn’t given any way to clock in, and this place was ridiculously mom-and-pop.

Later, I thought to ask about the break schedule. One of the waitresses looked at me in disbelief in response to my question, “Breaks? Yeah, right. This is the food service industry, honey, there are no breaks.”

“Uhm. That’s illegal.”

Her eyes became daggers and suddenly I felt a shift in the atmosphere as all of the employees stared at me, contemplating my naivety. I was just the young new girl—who was I to think that I was entitled to a break? “If you have a problem with that, you should take it up with our manager. But I don’t think she’ll like that,” she said grimly.

I felt helpless and realized that I wasn’t in Kansas —er, corporate— anymore. I knew the break laws like the back of my hand. I knew that I should have received two ten minute breaks and a lunch. For fear of losing my newly acquired job, I decided to let it go, while my discomfort remained.

Before I left, I asked a supervisor if I should just email her a log of the times I was in and out, to which she responded, apparently confused, “I thought you were just doing try out shifts? We don’t pay for those.”

My face reddened with anger and my heart rate sped up. “I was not told these shifts would be unpaid. If I was told that, I would not have agreed to work a full 8 hour shift. Everyone has told me to log my hours so that I would get paid.” I spurted the words out so fast that I almost didn’t register them. I felt incredibly taken advantage of and needed to stand up for my eighteen-year-old self.

She was taken aback by my abrupt and firm response, and told me that she would check up with the manager as soon as possible to see that I would be paid.

The next day, the manager’s casual response was, “Yeah, honey, we’ll make sure you get paid. Give your documents to the supervisor before the end of the day and she will handle everything.”

A couple hours passed. I was approached and asked to leave early; they were apparently overstaffed. My documents were given back to me, and I was shooed out the door.

The next morning, I received an email saying that they would not be continuing the training process with me.

I never got a break.

I never got paid.

I see this all too much in minimum wage jobs, particularly in the foodservice industry. My friends tell me they worked 8 hours with no break. They were made to stay an hour late, off the clock. They did not get overtime.

I should have been smarter, I should have seen the signs. What exactly happened in my situation is unclear, but I write this as an outcry to you. I hope that you all are smarter. I hope that you familiarize yourself with labor laws. For lack of a better phrase, I hope that you don’t take too much shit. We may be young, but we are strong, we are fierce, and we deserve to be treated with respect.

Elena Stacy writes a weekly column on finding confidence and managing stress on the way to adulthood.