A Slice of Hell: Working at Villa Italian Kitchen

Des Moines, Iowa

The first taste of Hell in my working life was in the fall of 2012 when I was hired as a part-time dishwasher and cook at Villa Italian Kitchen in the Merle Hay Mall food court.

Villa opened its first location in New York City in 1964 before expanding into a national franchise. For years the restaurant had been a hot spot in the mall, but Merle Hay had fallen on hard times.

Retail suffered after the financial meltdown of 2008, and the prevalence of online shopping continues to damage retail. This has led to store closings, layoffs and fewer customers. Mall employees were expected to work more for less and with a smile.

By age 23, I had graduated college with a journalism degree and student loan debt. Job openings in my field were scarce, and I needed work. A couple of my friends working at Villa helped me secure an interview with the manager and I was hired the same day.

I was grateful, at first. As a former customer, it did seem strange that the restaurant rarely kept the same staff for more than a month. Not long after I started, I realized why they didn’t stick around.

Entering ‘Hell’s Kitchen’

The kitchen was hardly built for efficiency, let alone safety.

The cramped kitchen would overheat from the pizza ovens displayed out front and old stoves hidden in the back. A massive steel table, a giant freezer, electronic dough mixers, overpacked cupboards and two large sinks leaking water made it difficult to move around.

Supplies were stored on a large space above the freezer. The only way to reach these items was to climb a rickety ladder with rusted wheels. I always feared using the ladder in case the bottom steps gave out or I lost my balance, potentially causing me to hit the floor or crash onto a hot stove.

The first time I burned my hand during a busy lunch service, I grabbed the first aid kit with my good hand from its place on the wall next to the sink. I opened it only to discover it was empty, with the exception of a few bandage scraps.

Above the first aid kit was a sign depicting a stick figure falling backward. It was a mocking reminder of how bosses blame workers if they are injured on the job, calling them “careless,” meanwhile ignoring the dangerous conditions and the breakneck pace demanded of kitchen workers.

The top reasons for youth worker injury and illness, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, are unsafe equipment, inadequate safety training, inadequate supervision, pressure to work faster and stressful conditions.

As defined by OSHA, workplace hazards for food service workers include hot cooking equipment, sharp objects, heavy lifting, slippery floors and electricity. My coworkers and I were exposed to these hazards on a daily basis.

Starvation wages

The hourly wage was $7.50, just 25 cents above the state minimum. Even back then it was not enough to support someone, especially when they’re only permitted to work part time.

My uniform was red with a black collar, a Villa emblem and the words, “Made Fresh Daily” printed on the shirt. During my interview, the manager said the cost of my uniform would come out of my paycheck, so I “wouldn’t have to worry about” paying for it.

Far from being a favor, I discovered this was illegal under Iowa Code 91A.5. According to the Iowa Division of Labor: “Deducting the purchase price of uniforms from an employee’s paycheck is not allowed if the uniform identifies the business through a logo or company colors.”

I frequently had to stay after work, off the clock without pay, to clean the kitchen and prep the dough for the next day when the previous shift was unable to do it. This unpaid work, along with the uniform fee, was wage theft — the illegal pocketing of payment owed to me.

In 2012, the Iowa Policy Project released the document titled “Wage Theft in Iowa.” This report described rampant wage theft in industries such as food service, causing “low-wage Iowa workers to miss out on an estimated $600 million in wages each year.”

After two weeks of minimal training sessions and hard labor in the sweltering kitchen, I was handed my first paycheck. It came to a little over $75. Things went downhill from there.

Recipe for misery

Despite being a “part time” employee, this job consumed my life. I never knew what my schedule was until the last minute.

Sometimes I would wake up after a few hours sleep to a phone message from my boss, leaving little time to get to work. There were times when I was “accidentally” scheduled and was told to go home. If there weren’t enough customers, I was dismissed early to “offset labor costs.”

It was customary to work three days in a row and have the next four days off. On better nights I worked from 5 p.m. until we closed at 9 and earned $30 before taxes. On bad days, I would take off my apron and leave after working only two hours for a mere $15.

The other restaurants in the food court ran on similar schedules — erratic, randomly assigned and seldom repeated. For me, the constant stress and lack of sleep led to physical and mental health problems.

A 2017 Mental Health America survey ranked food service among the “unhealthiest” work environments. Many of the workers surveyed said their job negatively impacted their personal relationships and they were burdened by “a constant fear of losing their jobs” and engaged in “unhealthy behaviors to cope with workplace stress.”

Exhaustion, social alienation, poor diet and miserable pay are a recipe for depression. After two months I realized this was no way to pay my student loan debt or my bills, so I quit.

The way Villa treated me and my coworkers was not unique but the norm for the restaurant business.

Ongoing fight for $15

Villa at Merle Hay Mall has since closed, leaving only three locations in Iowa. The experience did not benefit me as an employee; it did educate me as a worker-journalist.

It turns out that I was not alone — millions of my fellow workers share these grievances.

The same year I worked at Villa, the Fight for $15 campaign was launched in New York City before going nationwide. Workers are uniting across various sectors to secure a living wage, the right to join a union, safer working conditions, benefits and dignity on the job.

Skeptics have long said that “organizing the food service industry can’t be done” or “hourly wages of $15 or higher are unrealistic.” Food service workers are proving the skeptics wrong. The Fight for $15 movement is only getting stronger.

Thanks to these ongoing efforts, over 5.3 million workers in 19 states and 21 cities will see an increase in the minimum wage this year. Nonunion workers are organizing and more people are joining this struggle every day.

Workers are hungry for revolutionary change.

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