Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Employee At Will

There's a pervading belief in New York that, if you lose your job, you can always wait tables. Maybe that's the true New York love story; even in the toughest of times, people still gotta eat. I don't think a market in free fall will discourage New Yorkers from dining out. Will they change their standards? Perhaps. Will they order fewer appetizers and more cheap light beers? Almost certainly. Will the gluttonous, investment banker days of yore return to us anytime soon? Almost certainly not.

Open or even the New York Times' database and you're sure to find hundreds of open positions. Server Wanted. Bartender Wanted. Hot Female Cocktail Waitress Wanted. (Don't doubt it: there's ads like that out there.) Even in an economic blackout, people are still hiring.

Okay. Fine. Nice work if you can get it. The applicant pool is stronger this year, of course, because so many qualified people have lost jobs. Now the resumes in circulation mention Ivy League universities rather than state or culinary schools. Now they boast a long list of prior accomplishments: Speaks fluent Korean; Wrote a dissertation on 19th Century European painting; Recently left a position as Associate at Davis, Polk, and Wardell.

Actually, the pool is only part of the problem. The mistaken belief that you can always fall back on table-waiting has been debunked in recent months. Three of my friends lost their service jobs less than a week before the Christmas holiday. One such friend had worked at his restaurant for over two years, had seen it through two sets of New York Times reviews, one renovation, and several menu incarnations. He worked over 50 hours a week for this particular restaurant, showed up an hour late to work five days before Christmas and lost his job. It wasn't an offense that would have rendered him jobless in normal situations. In normal situations, he would have been written up and possibly sent home for the shift, but no server ever loses his job for a minor (and non-habitual) temporal infraction.

Why did they fire him? Why have many capable servers lost their jobs in recent weeks? Because the pool has officially infiltrated restaurants. They can do better, and they know that. Why not take a fresh new face, someone unjaded, someone who has not yet developed the bad habits that veterans inevitably develop? Why not take full advantage of an oversaturated market by cherry-picking the best of the best?

I won't get into the concepts of loyalty and decency, which are foreign to many a well-oiled machine, er, restaurant. Loyalty means taking care of employees who have dedicated their blood, sweat, and tears to the progress of a company. Decency means keeping even the most unfit employees around until after Christmas. Even Scrooge eventually saw the light.

Loyalty, decency, those aren't business concepts or business ideals. Loyalty and decency don't bring in the holy buck. They don't ensure success. Loyalty and decency can sink a ship.

Yes, there are plenty of fall backs in the wide world of New York dining. There will always be a job for the jobless, even if it's in the tackiest Times Square haunt you can imagine. What is gone--what was fleeting before and is almost a whisper now--is the concept of job security. The workforce, we are now meant to believe, is infinitely expendable. Even the best servers are cogs, replaceable when the occassion rises.

How completely unfortunate that America has come to this.

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