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The Unreasonable Lengths Restaurant Workers Have to Go to Take Time Off

From working doubles in advance to finding their own replacements, here’s how unsalaried shift workers manage when it comes to vacation

Getting time off when you work shifts and depend on tips is always a challenge, but for Tiffany Ran, flying back to Taiwan to see her family presented special difficulties. “My home isn’t in California or Colorado,” she says. “I need two weeks.” Ran has spent time in some of Seattle’s top restaurants, and visiting family required careful planning, weeks of toughing out extra shifts, and reliance on the goodwill of her coworkers. “[I’m] pretty exhausted,” she says, by the time she actually leaves, but she believes it’s a fair trade, since her coworkers have to pick up her own shifts while she’s away.

Taking time off in the restaurant industry — for self-care, vacation, family visits, or anything else — can be hard: The same camaraderie and teamwork that makes a kitchen or floor crew work so well often suggests that time away lets down the team or means you’re shirking your duty. Meanwhile, without the kind of paid vacation that salaried jobs bring, any vacation costs not only in money spent, but doubly in money that isn’t being earned during that time.

“It can be a trust-fall exercise to make vacation happen,” says Ran. But over the years, she figured out strategies that made it possible, starting with working at the right restaurant: When she worked for Japanese restaurants Miyabi 45 and Eater 2018 Best New Restaurant Kamonegi, everyone had long journeys home and her coworkers were more understanding of the need for longer stretches of time off. Now that she’s starting her own pop-up series, BaBaLio, infusing Pacific Northwest ingredients into Taiwanese cuisine, she’s moved to working for a caterer/farmers market stand that leaves her the flexibility to take time for her own work.

Similarly, Randy Elskamp, a bartender at Cantina Mayahuel in San Diego, takes advantage of working somewhere with a schedule allows for regular “bartender’s weekends,” from Monday morning to Thursday afternoon. He sometimes uses those regular days off to head to Palm Springs, two hours away, for a relaxing mini-vacation. “We live a different kind of life,” he says. “A lot people sweat and save to take two weeks off,” but he’s able to travel more routinely.

From the management side, Roz Edison, the co-owner of Seattle’s Marination restaurant group, which has 140 employees among its five restaurants, recognizes the challenges. “At the level of hourly employee, it’s rare to be able to take vacation,” she says, so the company works to help, rather than discourage people from taking time off.

At the fast-casual Marination restaurants, everyone is cross-trained to make scheduling more flexible. “The more you know, the more we can schedule,” she says of the importance of being able to work various positions.

That’s something Ran recommends looking for, too. “Back when hierarchy was more important, you wouldn’t want someone on your station,” she explains. But now that taking time off has become important, she says, “We all have to be more cooperative, [and] teach newcomers to take over.”

Part of that cooperation comes from communication: When it comes to supporting employees taking needed time off, Edison asks to be informed as far in advance as possible. Her system is “nothing that innovative,” but in a culture that has often been about fending for yourself and making as little noise as possible, even putting in a simple request, like time off, can make you feel as though you’re being a burden or a difficult team member. She hopes to erase that, asking only for a bit of notice in exchange for the time off—ideally at least two weeks, since that is how far ahead the company makes its schedules. That way, managers can schedule the employee’s time off rather than force them to scramble to trade shifts — something as much in management’s best interests as the employees, she says, as “Their best buddy might not be the best person to cover for them.”

Elskamp, who also is a co-owner of a bar in downtown San Diego, agrees: “Don’t tell me Tuesday you’re leaving for 10 days.” Though he admits to having done it in the past, he encourages employees to give any heads up they can, and he’ll do his best to help get the shifts covered. But he warns, “Don’t just spring it on me. You won’t have a job in two weeks when you get back.”

Edison offers a softer look, saying she knows that life happens: “The worst thing to do is a no-call, no-show.” With a bit of notice, she says, her company and managers will do their best to help employees not just schedule their time off, but to add extra shifts before they go. “We’ll shuffle to help them rack up as many hours as they can,” she says, not worrying about any overtime incurred, to help them earn money for when they’re gone and to ease the schedule for other people who might work extra when they’re away. “We’d rather have a happy employee go on vacation.”

It’s a more top-down approach to the usual scramble to trade shifts that’s necessary for taking time off. Elskamp describes his best strategy for earning vacation time as “Work a double, double, double, for three weeks or a month, then take two weeks off.” It’s exhausting and it can defeat the point of a vacation, since you’ll need two by the time you take it. But it’s an industry-wide issue, and one unlikely to be fixed without top-down legislation put into place that guarantees Americans vacation time, the way many other countries do. In January, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to implement that plan this year in his city, though the legislation has made little progress during his failed presidential campaign.

Beyond the extra shifts, prepping for vacation can add an additional burden, especially in smaller kitchens. The responsibility for your station still falls to you; Ran likens it to caring for a small child. “Similar to leaving a list with a babysitter,” says Ran, “leave your team well set-up with information.” If they’ve got what they need and know what’s happening, you keep their jobs from being harder when you’re not around.

A veteran of the industry, Elskamp points out that when he started more than 20 years ago, even if you were dying, you always had to be there. “Now, it’s like, take your time,” he says. “Take a night off. We’ll cover it.” The move toward a more compassionate look at employee well-being has meant that employers like him and Edison recognize that an employee who gets a break to recharge is, long-term, a better asset to the company. This is sadly far from industry standard, but it helps to know those jobs are out there.

“None of us is truly expendable,” says Ran. “If a restaurant is treating you like you are, why are you there?”

Naomi Tomky is a Seattle-based writer.
Carolyn Figel is a Brooklyn-based artist.