Like thousands of Central Florida teens, 16-year-old Dean Ashby had no trouble finding a summer job. Last month he went to work for Oldenberg Brewery Restaurant in the Oviedo Marketplace. He was hired as a line chef, he says.
When he reported to work, however, Ashby was made a dishwasher -- at a 17 percent pay cut. But at least the hours were long. In a complaint to the Florida Department of Labor, Ashby accused the restaurant of violating Florida's child-labor laws by making him work 12 straight hours without a break or even "a drip of water." He also accused Oldenberg of lying to him about his position and salary, forcing him to operate dangerous machinery without training or supervision, and verbally abusing him.
Ashby says he was not shown how to work the dishwasher and fell three times on the wet floor before a co-worker helped him. "I could have burned my hand off," Ashby says.
Despite his supervisor's promise that he would be a chef, Ashby continued doing dishes his second day at work. That's when he learned the salary he was quoted when he was hired -- $7.75 an hour -- had shrunk to just over $6. The manager said he would get a raise after a 30-day probationary period, but Ashby doubted it. He quit after three days. "I hate that place," he says.
Although it isn't clear how many Dean Ashbys are baited and switched into jobs they would not have taken otherwise, state labor department officials acknowledge that Central Florida's 2.8 percent unemployment rate has put lower-level managers in a bind: They can't increase wages because of edicts from the central office. But they're desperate to fill positions just to keep their enterprise running.
According to Bob Brandwie, who investigates child-labor-law violations for the state, most violations stem from poor management. Because supervisors in the customer-service industry are increasingly younger and less experienced, they are less capable of handling the difficult situations. This leads to conflict between middle management and workers, leaving the workers feeling unappreciated, dissatisfied and looking for a new job.
High turnover plagues the industry, says Hal Basham, who works for the labor department assisting the restaurant industry to recruit workers. Employees quit for a variety of reasons, he says; with so many spaces and a limited number of applicants, sometimes employers do hire unqualified workers.
Because turnover affects middle management as well, managers also must fill the voids left by departing supervisors. These positions are typically filled by inexperienced people promoted out of necessity, Brandwie says. In situations such as Ashby's, a supervisor's lack of experience can lead to violations and sometimes even abuse.
Joe Plezcoch, general manager at the Oldenberg Brewery Restaurant, says his restaurant does not have a management problem. Most of his employees are happy, he says, adding that all of his lead managers have a thorough background in the restaurant business.
Basham doesn't see the trend of younger management as a problem in and of itself, but he agrees that restaurants -- and all businesses that deal in the customer-service industry -- may be forced to hire unqualified middle management in the future as the industry grows. "Employers get put in a bind," Brandwie says. The market places them in a situation where they depend on teen-age labor "like heroin."
Sometimes, Brandwie says, this forces employers to ignore the laws just to keep their businesses afloat. Ashby's case presents an apparent violation, but only of the relatively minor rule on breaks. The child-labor law, Brandwie says, is designed to discourage children from dropping out of school. To that end, it places restrictions on the hours and times kids can work during the school year, but doesn't restrict work in the summer except for a mandated half-hour meal break every four hours.
Many large restaurant chains have established rules that go beyond what the government requires. Hops, a restaurant and brewery similar to Oldenberg, hires "very few people" under 18, says Christine Schroeder, a spokesperson for the chain. Wendy's fast-food restaurants and Publix Supermarkets also have policies that strictly enforce existing state laws, as well as mandating half-hour breaks for minors every four hours.
The labor department's first job, Brandwie said, is to educate business owners about what the law says, because a lot of them don't fully understand it. For that reason, the state can only give first-time violators a warning. The state does a follow-up investigation, Brandwie added, and will levy a fine if the business is still in violation.
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