Hey, restaurateurs: Want to exploit your cooks? Pay them day rates

OPINION: Day rates keep kitchen staff working long and hard. They’re also a rampant form of wage theft
By Corey Mintz - Published on August 28, 2017
busy chefs in a restaurant kitchen
Many cooks get paid for eight-hour days despite typically working much longer. (JazzIRT/iStock)

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If you want to screw cooks over, there’s no better way than the day rate.

In Ontario, there are four ways for cooks to get paid — hourly, daily, weekly, or (if you’re a stagiaire/intern) not at all. But while each scheme allows room for economic exploitation, if you are looking to take advantage of your employees and skirt labour laws, day rates are your best bet.

Not because you’re a bad person, mind you. But because, y’know, food, gas, and rent costs keep going up, plus the other excuses people use to justify wage theft. If that’s your situation, allow me to make the case for the day rate.

When I was a cook, I got paid a weekly salary. Divided by the 60 hours I worked, it amounted to less than minimum wage. My paycheque fraudulently claimed I’d worked only 40 hours a week. I’ve met plenty of cooks whose employers still use this gimmick.

Not that hourly pay is any inoculation from wage theft. An employer can circumvent that by paying cooks for eight hours but expecting them to come in two or three hours early every day, off the clock. The trick is that anyone in a management position — from sous chef to chef to owner — has to carefully avoid ever being explicit about the expectation. Even better, if you make a speech to the assembled staff about how you don’t want people coming in early, that can help maintain plausible deniability.

And while I’ve heard rare examples of reasonable day rates, they are still often the best way to get around paying cooks for the amount of work they do.

Paul, who is about to begin his first executive chef role, recently called me to dish — and to put some numbers behind what he sees as an exploitative practice.

At one Toronto restaurant, Paul was paid $135 for days that typically lasted 12 to 14 hours. That’s a range of $11.25 to $9.64 an hour, or less than minimum wage. The chef/owner, who describes Paul as a disgruntled former employee with a personal vendetta, tells me Paul’s $135 day rate was for an eight-hour day and that any extra hours he worked were voluntary, against the chef’s wishes. Paul says the kitchen staff referred to their workday as “the mandatory 12,” but that it used to be called “the mandatory 14.”

At another restaurant, which Paul praised as a great learning environment where everyone was treated well, there is some discrepancy between his account of payment and the owner’s. However, the owner did confirm that most of the cooks there work from 11 a.m. to midnight and that, while they average $150 a day, some start as low as $120. That’s $9.23 an hour.

At a third restaurant, Paul earned minimum wage. But he was paid for all his hours, plus overtime, which happened regularly since everyone worked 12 to 14 hours a day. During Summerlicious and Winterlicious, the kitchen worked from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.

Not every chef chooses to run this kind of kitchen.

“We don’t like to have people when they’re tired,” says Elia Herrera, executive chef of Los Colibris, El Caballito, and El Patio in Toronto. “I think they don’t enjoy what they’re supposed to be loving, which is cooking.”

Herrera pays her cooks by the hour: “We do not believe in 12-hours plus. We believe in a balance between work and a personal life. Also for our mental health. We do not work more than 10 hours.”

From what I’ve seen, this is unusual. In the course of my reporting, I’ve had chefs tell me to my face about their day rates totalling less than minimum wage. That’s just to start, they’d say — as if minimum wage were something you had to earn by working your way up, rather than the lowest payment permitted by law.


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The scheme of pushing hourly employees to work off the clock requires a lot of psychological manipulation of your staff. To do that you’ve got to cultivate a culture where your employees compete to push each other harder, in order for you to avoid explicitly directing them to arrive hours before their shift. And at some point you’ll likely have to falsify timesheets when an uppity employee challenges you on the money they are owed.

Weekly pay demands less fraud (except at tax time, when you have to issue T4s that claim your cooks work only 40 hours a week) on the part of the employer. But after a while, usually when someone needs dental work they can’t afford, salaried employees inevitably start grumbling about their rights and payment.

The day rate is exceptional for keeping your staff working hard and long for you. The choice they have as to how many days a week they work allows them some illusion of freedom. While the long hours required for a single unit of labour keeps them in an exhausted headspace where they can be convinced that eight hours is a half-day. I’ve even heard of kitchens that send cooks home just before the eight-hour mark and only pay them for a “half-day.”

When hiring, try telling them they’ll get another $20 a day in tips, as many chefs have told me. Tips are not wages. So it’s still not legal. But it may be enough to hustle them in the door.

Another good way to sucker potential employees is to estimate that a “typical” day is nine to 10 hours, before easing them into the reality that the whole kitchen works noon to midnight every day. The trick here is to make that estimate a verbal promise. Avoid putting it in writing, even a text, or the evidence could come back to bite you if your cooks ever work up the nerve to gather documentation and file a complaint with the labour board.

There are outliers, good and bad. One cook tells me he’s getting over $180 for 12-hour days. While another says he started at a Toronto restaurant three years ago, working 15-19 hours a day for $80. He worked his way up to $130 for a 14-hour day.

The cook, who is at a new job, working on salary, doesn’t blame his old boss, only the culture.

If you’re a decent person, you can pay people fairly under any mechanism. If you’re a chef who believes that the cooks working under you are lucky to be learning from a master and don’t deserve a legal wage, I have one more tip. It’s a magical phrase from the $80 a day cook. He says that when he applied for the job, he was a cooking school graduate eager for his first job. And the chef, instead of telling him what the job paid, just asked him how much he needed to survive. Again, never put that in writing.

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