Succulent starters, magnificent mains and delectable desserts. Montreal’s food culture is a beautiful thing, and foodies flock to the trendiest restaurants to sample the city’s best dishes.

But what goes on beyond the dining room and the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, at the back of the restaurant where no patrons sit but where employees convene?

Two young Montreal workers have come forward with allegations of mistreatment in the workplace. Ricochet investigated the claims of those employees and the working conditions at a hip restaurant chain and a popular frozen yogurt shop.

In Canada a majority of workers under 29 are part-time employees or hold down multiple contracts at once, according to the Canadian Labour Congress. Meanwhile, according to Generation Progress, fewer than one in ten workers under 35 are union members. These precarious conditions create a power imbalance with employers, and leave young workers particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

Sweating on standby

Rachel remembers the sweat trickling down her forehead to her nose, then dripping onto the concrete floor. Surrounded by two industrial refrigerators and two ice machines, she was alone in the bar section of the basement. The machines each emanated a steady heat, bringing the room temperature to nearly 40 degrees. This is where the 25-year-old spent most of her time — unpaid and without air conditioning — when she was an employee of St-Henri restaurant Venice MTL.

“I had to sit there and wait for it to get busy,” she said. “I’d wait a minimum of two and a half hours and only get to punch in for 50 minutes. Other times, I devoted my entire day to being there and made no money because I was on standby.”

Whenever Rachel was scheduled as the third server, the staff at Venice directed her to the basement. Over the course of the 2018 summer, she learned that not only was the third server confined to standby shifts, but so was the second busser.

Ricochet obtained a copy of an employee manual for Venice and the adjoining bar, Paperplane. The document explains that employees must always be present and ready to work once they are on standby, and they can punch in only when they begin working.

Last June, Venice offered Rachel full-time hours as a server in their dining room, filled with surfboards and hanging ferns, the vibrant decor inspired by the California beach town. But after she accepted the position, she worked just three full shifts in three months. When she was summoned upstairs, she often texted her boyfriend or friends to come eat at Venice.

Are employees expected to cover the costs of their mistakes or counterfeit bills? At no time can the employer require an employee to pay the costs of operations (e.g. customers who leave without paying, shoplifting, breakage of a piece of equipment, etc.). -Article 85.1 of Quebec’s Act Respecting Labour Standards
Are unpaid standby shifts legal? When an employee is asked to present themselves at the workplace, they are considered to be at work, even if the employer doesn’t give them anything to do. -Article 57 What is the minimum number of hours an employee must be paid? Even if an employee works less than three consecutive hours, they are entitled to three hours wage. -Article 58

“I would make sure they sat in my section, that way I wouldn’t get sent home because I didn’t have enough clients,” she said.

On June 22, 2018, after Rachel had completed her training, she ate at Venice as a customer. During the evening, she noticed another employee coming up from the basement in tears.

“At the time, I didn’t exactly understand what was going on, I figured this was a one-time thing,” she said.

It was only after Rachel’s experience in Venice’s basement that she realized her co-worker’s tears were the product of the recurring standby shifts.

She called the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST), the organization tasked by the government of Quebec with monitoring workplace rights and responsibilities, to ask if the standby shifts were illegal. The commission confirmed that they were. So she confronted her employers.

“They argued that the shifts were legal,” Rachel said. “They told me that it’s the name of the game in the restaurant industry. They bullied and intimidated me to stay quiet.”

“I know that a few of my co-workers were also considering calling the CNESST but they were scared of losing their jobs,” Rachel said. “As soon as I told people that I had called, my co-workers said they were proud of me. They said no one knows what’s going on here.”

After about three months of work, Rachel left Venice. She currently has a file open with the CNESST.

Venice has three locations in Montreal. Ricochet asked Charles Manceau, who is the public face of the restaurant, about the standby shifts. He denied them. When the employee manual was quoted to him, he confirmed that there were standby shifts but said that the employees waited at home and not at Venice.

Super-sized surveillance

Gooey marshmallows, decadent cookie dough, crunchy coffee crisp. The assortment of delectable dessert toppings is vast at TCBY in Côte Saint-Luc. Choosing just two, even for a dessert connoisseur, is quite the conundrum. After a minute of deliberation, a customer selects the golden, chocolate-covered peanut butter chunks and the colourful, chewy gummy bears.

As the frozen yogurt and toppings whir, the employee hears these dreaded words.

“Actually, could I have cookie dough instead?”

Picking up a black marker to draw the letter X on the cup, Morgan (a pseudonym to protect their identity) hopes that this time they won’t have to pay for the discarded dessert. Maybe this time, the boss isn’t watching.

The TCBY in Côte Saint-Luc
Alexa Everett

Morgan claims that the owner of TCBY Cote-St-Luc, Lenny Rosenberg, carefully monitored the work performance of his employees and observed any errors they made.

“It made me feel strange knowing that I was always being watched,” said Morgan. “Anything I did could be tracked and questioned afterwards.”

The store had been robbed numerous times, which prompted Rosenberg to install multiple cameras. But the heightened security measures weren’t just used as a safety precaution, according to Morgan. If a customer changed their mind or an employee made an error when preparing a dessert, workers had to justify the reason behind any discarded items at the end of their shift, according to Morgan.

“We had to initial any errors and management would decide if we should be held accountable,” said Morgan.

The staff would often try to hide their mistakes in one of the store’s only blind spots. As an assistant manager, Morgan tried to protect others from paying for their mistakes.

“When someone on counter service would make a mistake, I wouldn’t want them to pay for it,” said the former assistant manager. “I would throw out their mistakes for them.”

Morgan claims that TCBY workers also had to pay for errors beyond discarded frozen yogurt.

“One employee had spoiled a few cakes, and she was told to pay for the damage or work a shift for free,” Morgan said. “My friend accepted a counterfeit $20 [bill] and they made her pay for it, even though we were only shown how to detect American counterfeit.”

“If we punched in the wrong thing at the register or a transaction was left unfinished, management would go back into the cameras and see who did it,” Morgan said.

“I’ve seen them zoom in a few times, and they could catch details. It was uncomfortable knowing he could be watching us at any moment. The manager would remind us that he was watching, even if he was on vacation.”

When asked about these allegations, Rosenberg claimed that he absorbs the cost of all mistakes. Rosenberg also claimed that he made only one employee pay for a $100 counterfeit bill 15 years ago.

“It looked like monopoly money, so I made an example of this case. They get training on how to identify money,” Rosenberg said. “We have a pen for American money and they should know how to identify Canadian money. They can come to me if they ever have a question.”

The TCBY owner chalked these allegations up to the present generation of workers.

“Too many today are standing around waiting for a paycheque. Everyone really has the same issue with finding good workers today,” Rosenberg said.

Morgan says they still think about their time at TCBY.

“It was such a toxic environment, I didn’t want to have a conversation with him,” Morgan said. “They wanted us as subdued as possible.”

Labour code violations common

Aki Tchitakov, the executive director of Youth Employment Services, says generally cases of mistreatment in the workplace are uncommon because employers are making more of an effort to appeal to employees.

“The market favours job seekers, so employers are making sure they have competitive offers.”

But labour code violations are common in the food business, which Tchitakov says is particularly harsh. He urges any employee facing similar treatment to take steps to rectify the situation.

“Have dialogue, document the situation and raise the situation with HR services. Know the personnel policy and what is allowed and not, know the recourse they have.”

But with some restaurants openly flouting labour laws, it can be an intimidating task to call out abuses. All the more so for workers who need the salary to make rent or buy groceries.

In 2017 alone the CNESST fielded 4,558 complaints from workers in the hospitality sector, more than any other sector of the economy except retail sales. The complaints ranged from unpaid salary to psychological harassment and unjustified termination.

Editorial assistance on this story was provided by Giordano Cescutti