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This week’s 5 head-spinning moments: New realities for restaurant employers

Restaurateurs look at the rapid-fire developments in technology and worry about keeping up. But that’s a cakewalk compared with adjusting to the changes re-scripting relations between restaurant employers and employees. It’s not an overstatement to say the co-dependence is undergoing the most sweeping redefinition since cavemen decided they’d occasionally like someone else to prepare their wooly-mammoth burger in exchange for a few pelts. There’s no WebMD.com for dealing with the upheaval, though everyone keeps trying to come up with the right prescription.

Witness these recent events:

1. The NLRB is rewriting your employee handbook

The head-spinning development here wasn’t the release of the new rules, since that happened two weeks ago, but why a gang of restaurateurs didn’t form outside the National Labor Relation Board’s headquarters, weapons and torches in hand. 

The much-loathed agency is using its mandate of protecting unions’ rights to dictate what employers can and can’t say to employees about such routine matters as confidentiality, the use of social media and showing respect for co-workers. NLRB General Counsel Richard Griffin explains in the 30-page document that well-intentioned and seemingly innocuous language in the manual given to new hires might actually violate employees’ legal right to grouse about working conditions, a common prelude to organizing.

Among the actual manual extracts he cited as law-violating stipulations:

"Never publish or disclose [the Employer's] or another's confidential or other proprietary information. Never publish or report on conversations that are meant to be private or internal to [the Employer]." (Some employees could misconstrue that guideline to mean they can’t discuss their employers’ pay scale or the working conditions, which is their legal right, Griffin explained.)

“Be respectful to the company, other employees, customers, partners, and competitors."

“No ‘defamatory, libelous, slanderous or discriminatory comments about [the Company], its customers and/or competitors, its employees or management’.” (Employees may be afraid to voice criticism if they read those last two rules, Griffin said.)

A whole section of the report deals with what an employer can and cannot say in setting guidelines for employees’ mention of their company on social media and their use of cell-phone cameras during work time.

These were not academic examples. Griffin noted that the NLRB had worked with Wendy’s to correct the language Griffin adjudged to be unlawful.

2. Servers to employers: ‘Can we talk?’

Look intently enough at any recent flashpoint between employer and employee and you’ll likely spy the involvement of a union, carefully masked and masterfully camouflaged. That’s why it was refreshing to read this week of a restaurant-employee group in Asheville, N.C., that came together a few months ago with the express purpose of working with employers rather than unions to improve the workplace and its image.

The Asheville Sustainable Restaurant Workforce wants to help its members, but understands that it can’t do so by strong-arming employers and disregarding their interests. It sees the process as a balancing act between those parties—restaurants and employees—as well the third point of the triangle, guests.

The group’s stated goal is functioning in effect as a discussion group where the interests of all three constituencies can be weighed and addressed. Part of the process, say the organizers, is spreading the word about good employers and the best practices they’ve forged, instead of clubbing places that have room for improvement.

It’s not a pollyannaish effort. For instance, the group doesn’t hesitate to blast the industry for permitting wage theft within its ranks. It also makes no bones about serving employees; it’s drafted a restaurant workers’ bill of rights that it’d like employers to incorporate into their workers’ manuals.

But it’s urging them to do so, not dictating the move.

3. Ivar’s tests new compensation models

If you think In-N-Out has a hammerlock on the affections of West Coast consumers, you clearly haven’t met an Ivar’s fan. They are legion and rabid, be it for the company’s 50 or so quick-service clam joints or a handful of full-service places.

That’s why the company’s experiments with new ways of compensating employees will likely get considerable attention from the industry. When customers love a concept, it’s risky to make a change. And Ivar’s is trying a fairly radical one.

This week the company discontinued tips at its upscale Ivar’s Salmon House in Seattle and raised the lowest wages it pays any employee to $15 an hour, which becomes the mandated citywide minimum in 2017. Servers, bartenders and other staffers dependent on tips will be paid a hire wage to offset the discontinuation of gratuities. The additional funds will come from a hike in menu prices of about 21 percent, which theoretically will cover the 17 percent average tip a customer leaves and roughly a 4 percent increase in general expenses, including food costs. 

Customers will be informed of the reason they’re being charged the higher prices.

If Ivar’s computations are correct, employees should take home the same or slightly more money than they earned under the more traditional full-service model. Guests will pay slightly more than they would have, but as one charge paid to the restaurant, not a combination of the bill and a tip.

It’s a big “if.” We and no doubt much of the industry will be watching closely.

Meanwhile, Ivar’s raised the wages of crewmembers at its quick-service places to $11, the minimum in Seattle as of April 1. But stores outside of the city and its surrounding county will also get that raise, a move the operator characterized as the only fair recourse.

4. McDonald’s-scale math

Of course, restaurants in the Seattle area aren’t the only ones to give employees a sizeable bump in pay. One of the biggest stories of this or any other week had to be McDonald’s dramatic revision of company stores’ pay and benefits standards.

Think of the scale: 90,000 employees in 1,500 restaurants each collecting at least a 10 percent jump in their wages, plus paid leave time. If the employee doesn’t take the paid time off they’ve accrued, they’re given the money.

Starting wages will be set at least $1 above a market’s mandated minimum wage. By the end of 2016, the average pay within company stores will top $10, the company said.

In addition, the company is expanding its education assistance programs.

A former McDonald’s executive once remarked that she could trigger a worldwide sesame seed shortage by adding four more seeds to the specs for a McDonald’s bun. It’s a matter of the company’s ginormous scale. And we’re talking about a lot more here than four sesame seeds. The costs to the publicly owned company are staggering.

How did it get the idea? Employees indicated in surveys that they’d appreciate higher wages. The franchisor complied.

The new standards will be implemented starting July 1.

5. Hooter’s retro concept

Not every restaurant operator is keeping apace of natural progressions in the workforce, never mind the dictates of third parties. Hooters, for instance, isn’t budging on the notion of exclusively hiring women as servers, as antiquated as many may find that notion. Indeed, it poked fun at its critics with a detailed April Fool’s Day prank.

The breastaurant issued a press announcement of a new venture, a Hooters spinoff called Roosters that would be staffed solely with male servers. “Imagine the most craveable Hooters menu items—from fresh, never frozen, world-famous wings to mouth-watering burgers and fan-favorite fried pickles—all served up by the soon-to-be iconic Roosters Boys,” read the media release.

The company no doubt figured its current clientele would gag at the thought of hairy, scantily clad men leaning over the table to plunk a serving of wings in front of a leering customer. Give that image a try, detractors!

Har-har, hee-hee. How ridiculous, right?

Oh, ridiculous for sure.

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