Following an increase in conversations surrounding working environments in the PEI restaurant industry, a Charlottetown chef says passion is not enough to keep them in an industry that eats away at their sanity.
Morgan, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, has worked in the culinary industry for five years now. However, they said low wages, unsafe kitchen conditions and workplace bullying forced them off the pitch completely.
“You put in really, really crazy hours and in many cases also dangerous – for very little compensation,” they said.
“You can routinely expect shifts to last longer than 12 hours or in extreme conditions, like being entirely alone in a department store at four in the morning, before anyone can reasonably get up. You work with huge volumes and intense heat. No one else is really there to make sure you’re okay for long periods of time.
In 2022, the average hourly wage for a chef in P.E.I. was $16, according to the Canadian Job Bank. This figure is below the median national industry average of $18 per hour, as well as the estimated living wage of $19.30 per hour, according to a 2020 report by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives.
“Salary, although I hate to say it, especially in PEI in the restaurant industry, is such a personal thing from staff member to staff member. Because unless I sat down with all of my colleagues to find out how much we all make, most of us don’t make the same amount,” Morgan said.
“I think it creates a feeling of competition, but you don’t know who you’re up against. You just have this general idea of a social hierarchy.
But for Morgan, the hardest part of the restaurant industry isn’t the low wages or working hours, or even the mistreatment by customers — it’s the unfriendly management.
“A lot of the time when you get feedback on your work from management, it’s intense negativity. Threats of being fired, people being fired, talking about cutting your hours. This is another very real threat,” they said.
“I’ve worked in several places where your punishment is you just don’t get hours for a while, but they won’t actually fire you. … It’s in all the food establishments where I’ve worked in. It’s totally normalized.
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Toxic and Illegal Business Practices
Morgan’s experiences are not unique. Since March 11, SaltWire Network has received numerous comments and messages from current and former PEI restaurant and hospitality workers, each detailing toxic and sometimes illegal business practices. at their place of work.
These included wage theft, extended working hours without breaks, unplanned working hours and even verbal, mental and physical abuse.
SaltWire Network reached out to Steve Murphy of the PEI Restaurant Association on March 16 to discuss employee retention, workplace issues and some of the shared experiences. However, no response was received by the March 18 deadline.
Cora Sonier, who has worked in the restaurant industry for 25 years, said she was not surprised to hear about the conditions. During her time working as a server and in the kitchens, she said she experienced the same thing.
“I was told right away that (if anything happened) we don’t mention it to the health department, we don’t mention it to those people or those people. I was told that if I did, I would look for a new job,” she said.
Sonier said negligence is a big problem at restaurants on the island, with some owners and managers trying to sweep labor or health code violations under the rug and instead shifting blame or responsibility. on their employees. She said customer abuse is also a problem that plagues workers.
In an experience shared by Sonier, she detailed an incident she had while working as a server, where a customer complained about undercooked scallops. She said while talking with the customer, he grabbed her arm and tried to force a scallop into her mouth.
“I’m allergic to scallops and most seafood, for that matter. I can’t eat it,” she said.
Since leaving the restaurant industry, Sonier said her mental health is better than ever. However, she said at the time, she didn’t realize how damaging those environments were.
Sonier said changes needed to be made to protect restaurant workers, including allowing anonymous complaints to be filed with health and labor authorities.
“We shouldn’t have to put our name on a complaint because it’s hard enough to find a job in PEI. without being attached to a complaint,” she said.
“Nobody wants to be a troublemaker, so everyone stays quiet and the problem only gets worse.”
Sonier also said the biggest change will have to come from the restaurateurs themselves. However, she is not convinced that will happen.
“There are good addresses. Aim high. Go find the place that works for you, for your learning, and where you are honoured, respected, and seen.
-Chef Michael Smith
However, at least one owner has risen to try to make this change.
Chef Michael Smith, owner of The Inn at Bay Fortune, said the toxic work culture shared by others is what drove him to do business differently. This season at the Inn, Smith is moving the kitchen staff to a four-day work week, to promote better work-life balance.
“Knowing that these people work so hard, they are so committed – but we basically have to work 12-14 hour days, it has to be that way,” he said.
“That’s how it works in our chosen part of the industry. It’s like that, but I can do four days, and that’s what we’re going to do this year.
The pressure cooker environment of restaurant kitchens is no secret to Smith. During his early years as an apprentice in London, England, Smith was frustrated with the long hours and low wages offered in the kitchen.
“In this hierarchical, militaristic system, where we, you know, grind you to dust, so that we can rebuild you into the exact image that we need…that’s been a huge part of the kitchen culture. , historically, for 100 years. And, you know, it manifests in a very negative way in many places.
For those entering the industry or young chefs who already feel burnt out, Smith shared some advice – don’t settle for less than you deserve.
“There are good addresses. Aim high. Go find the place that works for you, for your learning, and where you are honored, respected, and seen,” he said.
For Morgan, who still works in the restaurant industry but is actively seeking another job, they remain hopeful for the future of the industry, especially with more workers speaking out and demanding fair treatment at the following a recent incident with a restaurant in Charlottetown.
On March 10, unethical practices within the restaurant industry became a hot topic in Prince Edward Island after an article leaked about a policy requiring servers paying out of pocket for restaurant mistakes has gone viral on social media.
Although restaurant management has since apologized and withdrawn the policy, the post sparked a larger conversation about the standards that food service workers are held to.
“The new generation of people coming in rightly recognizes in kitchens when things aren’t right and gets up and leaves – which is good and refreshing,” Morgan said.
“I think people have to start seeing the value in what they’re doing.”
Cody McEachern is a reporter for the SaltWire Network in Prince Edward Island.