Every other tech company is attempting to develop and market “Uber for this” or “Uber for that.” So the first “Uber, but for restaurant staff” press release went straight into the junk pile. But the pile kept growing. First Hyr, then existing hospitality agency Staffy, and then Pineapple.
With restaurants facing a labour crisis, it seems a good time to seriously consider anything that represents change, for better or worse.
The common problems (at the risk of simplifying them) are poor wages on the workers’ side, and a shortage of skilled labour on the restaurant end. Cooks tell me that they can’t live on the average $14/hour pay, or day rates that push that even lower. I still regularly hear about servers not paid for trial shifts and about their unwinnable fights to receive owed pay. And chefs tell me that the majority of prospective employees they do get are indolent, that for every 10 interviews scheduled only one or two applicants show up.
So, how are these labour apps addressing these problems?
They all work on the same “sharing economy” premise. Cooks, servers, and bartenders (and, as Staffy adds on its site’s animated pitch video, “brand ambassadors”) sign up as “contractors” or “talent.” They get a ping when a shift is available. Then they choose, should the time and compensation be acceptable to them, whether they want to accept it.
“There are skilled people out there right now who are looking for a side hustle,” says Hyr co-founder Erika Mozes. “They can help the industry deal with the shrinking labour pool. It may be uncomfortable for some to think about ‘sharing’ staff. But, the industry needs a new innovative solution to combat the realities of the new labour market.”
Staffy CEO Peter Faist says this is a solution for “absenteeism and underemployment in the industry.”
I asked Jackie Ross, principal and lead recruiter of JRoss Hospitality Recruiters, a traditional agency that focuses mainly on leadership positions, if these apps will disrupt her industry the way Uber did taxis.
“Hardly a month goes by without someone trumpeting the death of agency recruitment,” says Ross. “Job boards, social recruitment, and LinkedIn in particular were at one point considered the death of the agency world. Yet here we stand, stronger than ever after 14 years in business.”
Ross says that these apps, which she praises as “highly practical,” are all focused on temporary employment and won’t take a bite out of the intensive, personal process of finding the right candidates for good, full-time jobs (such as they exist). “To our knowledge, no app can do that.”
Pineapple co-founder Jerrett Young says that his interest is in addressing hospitality’s labour problem. “We are losing great people to other industries. Pineapple eliminates the need for gratuities by setting ranges that allow people to make a living wage. The reviews ensure that job seekers and job providers are held to a standard. We encourage long-term connections outside of Pineapple.”
Sounds good, minus the disarming “sharing economy” doublespeak. There is no sharing going on. This is about money — the thing people use to buy groceries. The disingenuous language these apps use is like if The Terminator, a movie about a killer robot from the future, was called The Job Creator, because it boosted the funeral industry.
A person who works for money is a worker, or an employee. The companies that develop these apps may wish to avoid language with Marxist overtones, but calling workers “contractors” or “talent” or “participactionators” or “funventurers” is not just disrespectful, it’s a scam.
And there’s an issue here that goes beyond income. (Alert: more Marxist overtones ahead.) When we surrender the language we use to describe ourselves to our employers, we surrender our identities.
I recently wrote for a magazine that used a blanket legal document for freelancers — identifying me as a “contractor” — and dealt with me no differently than an air conditioning repair person. Because of their one-size-fits-all contract, I was forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement or forfeit the money they owed me. Like the friend who was once told he was getting a promotion and it turned out to be a new job title — “Passion Architect” — that came with no salary bonus, let’s not be fooled by words.
Having said that, let’s look at the mechanics of these apps.
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Currently, Pineapple has no fees. In March 2017, they’ll be set at 10 per cent for employers and 5 per cent for workers. Hyr and Staffy both charge the employer/company only 20 per cent at Staffy and 30 per cent at Hyr. These are all based on total, pre-tax payments to employees. So for example, if you earn $100 on a shift you got through Staffy, the employer pays an additional $20 to Staffy.
Hyr and Staffy pay workers directly — Hyr by Interac and Staffy with a card that works like a pre-paid debit card (which charges $2.50 for withdrawals, a fee they’re hoping to eliminate). Pineapple pays through the job provider’s credit card.
Hyr and Pineapple lets contractors set their own rates; Staffy is developing that capability. Hyr offers vacation pay in a points-based scheme that amounts to 6 per cent, higher than the Ontario minimum of 4 per cent. Staffy has the advantage in network size. Because they were an established recruitment company before they launched their app, they’re leveraging their existing relationship with a larger pool of employers.
Hyr sends workers a reminder text an hour before their shift, and displays no-shows or cancellations on a worker’s file. Staffy penalizes no-show employees with a $100 fine (with exceptions for extenuating circumstances). Pineapple workers will get paid for four hours if employers cancel a shift with less than 24 hours notice. They don’t currently have a system for penalizing employees, but promise to remove people from the system for repeated absenteeism.
“The peer-to-peer review will help maintain the integrity of the Pineapple ecosystem,” says Young. “Having vetted all job providers and job seekers before joining the community should also help mitigate this.”
All of the apps feature some form of peer/client review system (except for Staffy, which currently only allows employers to rate employees). And if you’ve ever experienced the tyranny of five-star system guilt on Uber — no one wants to be the monster who takes food off of someone’s table through a star demerit for anything less than verbal/sexual/physical assault or racism — this is no different. Added to which, the community is too small for fair peer reviews. Unlike an Uber driver, you are likely to see these people again. And as one chef put it to me, a temporary cook in her kitchen is working in a new environment. Just explaining where everything is and how to properly plate dishes over one shift takes up much of her time, and doesn’t leave either party with a fair assessment of the other’s skills or leadership.
On the other hand, unlike Uber or Airbnb, where the technology helps people to circumvent labour or rental laws, restaurants are an industry where labour laws already don’t mean much. That doesn’t make it okay to break them. Above-prime-plus-30-per-cent is pretty pricey for temporary labour. And if you don’t see surge pricing around the corner, you’ve never taken an Uber on a rainy night. But it would be hard for the restaurant industry, where full-time employees are regularly cheated out of their deserved overtime pay, to cry foul on an app that helps part-timers take advantage of the system’s labour gap.
It’ll be interesting to see what, if any, impact this technology will have. Making it easier for restaurants to find an extra hand on short notice, while enabling freelancers more control of working schedules and payment, could be win-win. But there could also be pitfalls around the corner that haven’t been considered yet.
They’re all in such early stages that the superior product hasn’t emerged yet. But for temporary hospitality workers, there’s no reason you can’t sign up for all three and see what works best. If you have, send me an email to let me know what you think.
Correction: When we originally published this article we misstated the order in which the apps launched; that information has now been corrected.
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