Many of the events I work, such as CNN Heroes, honor those who forged ahead despite the odds to make this world a better place. As I stand in the shadows and listen to their stories I am emboldened by their fortitude. Their stories truly inspired me and equipped me with the courage to write this very article. I may, however, get “fired” for it.
Compass Group, PLC, the largest food contract corporation in the world enjoys high profits. Its Chief Executive, Richard Cousins, enjoys an annual multimillion-dollar salary and bonus. Meanwhile, my employer CxRA, one part of Restaurant Associates, one of over fifty subsidiaries of Compass Group, hasn’t issued a raise in fifteen years. It deliberately prevented employees from using paid sick leave for months. It charged clients, who thought they were tipping us, service fees reaching over a million dollars.
I am but one of thousands of on-call catering butlers who work for CxRA (Catering by Restaurant Associates). We work in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut and Washington, DC. As an on-call employee, CxRA can stop giving me work or “fire” me for any reason without notice.
After an hour on the subway, I’ve started work at 5:00am to serve breakfast to executives in any one of the skyscrapers dotting NYC’s skyline. I’ve worked until 2:00am passing hors d’oeuvres, pouring wine and moving tables at million-dollar birthday parties for children and gala events. If you watched the annual CNN’s Heroes event on TV, I most likely was rushing to serve someone a special meal or pour coffee in the background.
At night I would be assigned VIP tables closest to the stage and farthest from the kitchen. There could be over 100 tables on the floor. Those that attend these tables are often the clients who pay for the event. Therefore, I must work harder than other butlers to provide exemplary service and am more responsible for the success of the event. All butlers however, both experienced and inexperienced, reliable and unreliable, receive the same rate of pay.
That pay is $19.00 an hour. Some view this rate as well compensated but there are costs. I have no vacation or personal days and, most importantly, no guaranteed hours. Only until NYC mandated it, I had no paid sick leave. In order to maintain an adequate amount of hours I must be available 24 hours a day and must be available at the last minute but sometimes this isn’t enough. Butlers call the staffing office every day begging for work so they can pay their bills.
Meanwhile, I’m pretty certain clients, such as CNN, pay much more for my services now than they did years ago.
CxRA has hired over 8,000 people in NYC alone since they hired me. Each year they hire hundreds of new people grateful for a $19.00 wage. Unfortunately, many of these same people leave because they can’t receive a stable income. I’ve only been able to survive because of unemployment insurance. Other butlers have qualified for Medicaid.
Some might say, “Find another job.” but that’s easier said than done. The prospects for better earnings elsewhere are dim. Even though the unemployment rate dipped to 5.9%, economist Barry Bluestone admitted, “over the last five years wages haven’t been rising for most workers in America”. Why should I be forced to leave a company that can easily afford to treat me better? I’d rather change the system I’m in than leave it for another.
Compass Group’s own 2013 annual report declares a total operating profit of over a billion dollars (£802 million). Nearly half of the company’s revenue is generated here in North America. This past July, Compass’s shareholders approved the return of £1 billion in cash to themselves.
Though I haven’t had a pay raise in years, Cousins has. His salary went up £3.17 million from 2009 to 2013 when he was paid £5.5 million as his salary and bonus. That’s about 8.8 million dollars. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics $19.00 per hour in 1999 would be $27.13 today if adjusted for inflation. Is it too much to ask my wages be raised $3.00 to $22.00 per hour?
Wage stagnation and the stark disparities between the rich and poor are not only a national issue but a global one. Juliette Garside of The Guardian recently remarked on the historic pay gap in the U.K.:
At Compass Group, which employs many cooks, cleaners and security officers, the average pounds 13,000 annual salary is among the lowest in the FTSE 100 index. But chief executive Richard Cousins took home pounds 5.5m last year - 418 times more than his workers.
Because of CxRA’s hiring practice and my on-call status, I always feel insecure about my job and was afraid to speak out. There’s not an event that goes by that doesn’t include a conversation among butlers about how badly we’re treated. These conversations usually end with the resigning words “It is what it is.” A couple issues (besides not ever having received a raise), however, compelled me to change those words to “Enough is enough”.
First, CxRA charged a service fee anywhere from around ten to twenty percent of a client’s entire bill. Clients would believe the charge was a tip for us, the catering staff, but we never saw a penny of it. Imagine how much it must cost to cater the annual CNN Heroes event at the Natural History Museum. Hundreds of people sit down to eat dinner after a reception. CNN could have been issued a service charge up to $100,000.
Every year in NYC alone, CxRA caters a number of large, high-profile events such as CNN Heroes and the Metropolitan Opera Gala along with thousands of smaller ones. Venues include Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center, The Intrepid, Guggenheim and Brooklyn Museums. CxRA caters the Mercedes-Benz NYC Fashion Week twice a year and the annual NFL Draft. Imagine how much those service charges would add up to over five years.
A class action lawsuit started by one brave butler, Dan Yahraes, demanded the money from these service charges be paid to us as clients expected. After a long fight, a settlement of a mere $1.5 million dollars was reached that spans five years and thousands of catering events. CxRA will most likely not even pay the full $1.5 million.
I will be required to fill out, notarize and mail in a release form along with a copy of a government issued I.D. and a completed W-4 form to receive my share of the settlement. Months ago, a notice was automatically mailed to the class stating a judge granted the lawsuit class action status. If CxRA knew who I was and where I lived then, why am I now required to take these steps? They will undoubtedly discourage some from getting the paltry sum that’s due them.
The worst part, however, is the section titled “Grounds for Settlement Termination”. Should the expenses of the lawyers, court filing fees, lead plaintiffs’ payment and the submitted forms of the member class exceed $800,000, then CxRA has the right to walk away and pay us nothing.
Yahraes, who tirelessly spoke out about this lawsuit for the past three years was purportedly paid off by CxRA to “shut up and leave”. He no longer works for the company and can no longer talk about the settlement.
Secondly, as of January 2014 CxRA extended paid sick leave to NYC butlers but didn’t tell me or hundreds others we were entitled to it. In May, I sent an email to the office asking if I qualified for paid sick leave due to a NYC law that went into effect in April. The response was that I have paid sick leave. I was not informed at that time I already had it for over four months.
None of the managers notified me or any of my co-workers I spoke to that we had paid sick leave. I even called human resources (a toll-free number to an office in North Carolina) and the person I spoke to hadn’t heard of it either. He suggested I communicate with my manager regarding the matter.
This would be the same manager who I personally emailed a month earlier stating I had to call out sick for two days. He never mentioned anything about my paid sick leave benefit at that time. Only after I spoke directly to NYC Consumer Affairs Commissioner Julie Menin on May 23 did CxRA send a notice to me and my colleagues about the benefit. Later, I was paid retroactively for those two days but I needed that money when I was sick.
All I ask for is a $3.00 wage increase and more job security. Invest more in me and my long-standing co-workers instead of continually hiring hundreds of people treating us all as dispensable. It will be better for the bottom line of Compass Group.
Compass Group, PLC employs approximately 500,000 employees worldwide. May I pass on the inspiration I received from CNN Heroes to them as I say, “I stand with you for better working conditions, wages and job security. There’s power in your voice.”
(Also posted on CNN iReport here: http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1186298)