Fired After One Night: The Dangers of Trial Shifts in NYC

For a man nicknamed “El Gigante,” Pablo Lucero is surprisingly soft-spoken. We meet at the pizzeria he manages in Manhattan’s Financial District, inside a back office no bigger than a walk-in closet. His hands, the size of coconuts when balled into a fist, rap on the desk as we discuss the topic of unpaid trial shifts–post-interview shifts meant to teach potential hires the basics of a job, while giving employers a sense of their work ethic. In concept, they’re sound–in a city that boasts over eight million people, why not allow an extra layer of screening for employers? In execution, however, trial shifts can veer towards exploitation, serving as unpaid training, or as a means to get free labor. “I think it’s a load of bull,” he says, “because you’re coming in with experience–you already know the basics–so why would we waste your time not paying you? We’re the one’s hiring you.”

Lucero has heard about (and been involved in) trial shifts at restaurants since he first started managing seven years ago. I, on the other hand, have known about them for a little over a month, when I arrived, jobless, in NYC. After interviewing at a kitschy bagel spot in Little Italy, I got a follow-up email, asking if I was available to come in for a trial at 9 AM. That next day, I wasn’t sure what to expect–was trial just another name for training? But, by month’s end, having worked nearly 10 hours at four different restaurants without seeing a penny, I had picked up on its meaning.

Amid economic blabber about Millennials–y’know, those bogeymen who rack up credit card debt and data charges on their parents’ cellular plans–one might suppose that trial shifts are a new invention. But the practice is actually centuries old. Before culinary schools were the fashion, budding chefs would stage (pronounced stah-zhe, from the French stagiaire) at a neighboring kitchen, learning the tricks of the trade before eventually setting out on their own. Eventually, stages aligned more with today’s trial shifts, as an abbreviated shift to ensure that the kitchen and the chefs gelled. As DeepsouthNYC, a commenter on ChefTalk and the head chef at a high-end Italian restaurant, put it: “As a cook I wouldn’t want to work in a kitchen I’ve never been in. Chef could be a screamer, cooks could be angry, place could be filthy, who knows!”

These trials make sense in back-of-house (where the food is prepared) training: culinary mastery is a must in a competent kitchen. But it’s not nearly as vital in the front-of-house (where the food is sold), where college students and post-grads grow tired describing the menu in colorful ways. The jobs I trialed for–cashier, cheese monger, and server–weren’t particularly technical. Humorously, the only trial shift that might’ve given me a skill-based test, as a barista, refused to let me pull shots from the espresso machine, lest I make a mistake.

“If some of these places were constantly hiring, and constantly giving unpaid trial shifts, they could avoid hiring another employee.”

So what did I do during my unpaid trial shifts? I monitored people’s cups of water and coffee mugs, replenishing them with such frequency that I was certainly an annoyance. I swept leaves and restocked bathrooms. I wrapped perishables in cellophane, and then, in a Kafkaesque twist, unwrapped and rewrapped them for an hour. I studied the restaurants’ menus over and over. I answered customers’ questions, donning my confident, work-issued, straw fedora that, several sizes too small, nested loosely on a pouf of hair. In essence, my activities were not quite full-employee status, but they were also not tasks that you’d be expected to accomplish in an interview.

During trial shifts, it seemed I was either shadowing another employee, in which case, I wasn’t leaving much of an impression on my bosses at all. Or, I was acting as an employee on payroll–cleaning the restaurant front-to-back, getting chewed out by the boss (“You always put the c-folds down on napkins!”). The latter is especially disturbing when you consider that some of these jobs were found through Craigslist, a job board infamous for scams and “revolving door” jobs. If some of these places were constantly hiring, and constantly giving unpaid trial shifts, they could avoid hiring another employee. The potential for abuse makes it wise to pry: Will you pay for my trial? How long am I expected to come in? When do I cross the line from applicant to trainee?

Law-wise, the answer is relatively straightforward. Brian Heller, a partner at employment firm Schwartz & Perry, says, “If trial shifts are displacing the duties of employees, then that’s the dividing line.” If you look like an employee, and you act like an employee, you should be paid like an employee. But, for those unwilling to pony up lawyer money, for those dealing with expenses on a daily or weekly basis, that line easily gets lost in the fog.

Realistically, applicants are tasked to weigh the benefits and disadvantages of unpaid trial shifts. Is the shift worth the free time? I cancelled a few juicy interviews in order to secure trial shifts, a move I later regretted once I learned that I was not going to be compensated.

“Never getting money… that discourages people,” Lucero told me. Unpaid trial shift are yet another red flag to watch for on an NYC job hunt. It seems there are two ways to avoid the pitfalls of unpaid trial shifts. First, you could turn down any restaurant that refuses to pay for a shift you put in, hold your head high, and prepare for a cold winter. Secondly, you could ace your first trial shift (which isn’t easy), thereby avoiding the hamster wheel of trial shifts I found myself in. Make sure to take a notepad and a pen to show the bosses that you’re committed to remembering the details–apparently, staring aimlessly as you try to remember the difference between lox and gravlax does not impress.

Trial shifts aren’t going away–not in a city this big–so it’s wise to read up on them and adjust your job hunting expectations accordingly, lest you, too, end up sweeping floors in a brain-squeezing fedora.

All photos shot exclusively for Milk by Carlos Santolalla.

Stay tuned to Milk for more restaurant nightmares.

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