This came in last Thursday:

My son was hired at a restaurant in the Old Port and was promised a full-time schedule. He is home for the summer and only has a short period of time to make money before he goes back to school in the fall. His boss keeps saying there will be more hours, and tells him how busy they’ll get. In the meantime, he had stopped looking for other work, but isn’t making half the money he was told he would. I have never heard of such a thing and think it is deceitful.

Carol Y., Falmouth

Over the past few months, questions about restaurant employment policies and procedures have outnumbered other inquiries 2-1. Here’s the dish on Carol Y.’s question, which sums up components of the others:

Many area restaurants live for (and on) the few short months that make up our Vacationland summer. Well-trained staff – and enough of them who actually show up for work – can make or break that window.

In order to be operationally ready for a sunny weekend day, the interviewing, hiring and staffing ideally starts several weeks prior to the money-making action. This allows for training shifts (usually not too many, or tip-inclusive), and allows the manager to see who’s going to work out, and who isn’t.

On the other hand, “ideally” is just a concept, and last-minute hiring is more common than one would imagine. “Can you start at 7:30 tomorrow morning?” is not an unheard-of practice, but employee beware.

Such Band-aid, schedule-plugging tactics do not lend themselves to clear cut communication about shift-specific hours, expectations and other minor details like, say, the rate of pay. If you agree to set your alarm for 6 a.m., insist on a sit-down with a decision-maker later that same day, or ASAP, to iron out details.

Many seasonal places purposely over hire college-age kids. With little skin in the game, that demographic can be fickle, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen promised availability change at the last minute. As in, that same day.

I once hired a promising bar-back trainee who wanted to be a bartender in the worst way. Assuring me he had full and open availability, I was floored when two weeks into it, he told me he had to have Fourth of July weekend off to hang out at the family camp.

Needless to say, I schlepped my own ice until I could hire and train someone else. In fact, that was the week I dropped a beer keg on my big toe, but that’s a different column.

What really happens is, people get hired and things naturally start off slowly. Payroll and practicality don’t allow for new hires to come in just for the heck of it, but they have to be in the wings and ready when business starts flowing.

On top of that, unknown factors like weather, construction or brand new competition can change the game for the house. The new hires’ starting date may be pushed back, eliminated or changed in some way, none of it having to do with intentional deceit.

So, once again, the key is in asking the right questions, and being politely persistent in pursuing those answers within the manager’s control:

“How many hours will I be working before it gets busy?”

“How many hours will I be working when it starts to rock?”

“Will I have a set schedule?”

“What is the policy if I need a day off?”

“What is the rate of pay? Tip-out policy?

“How are tips claimed, and by whom?”

And, so many more …

As for the managers and owners, there’s no shame in saying, “I’m not sure yet.” It’s better than lying to get a warm body on the line, which I am told is more prevalent than ever these days.

“You won’t be working a lot in the beginning, but it will pick up after Memorial Day, and then even more around Fourth of July,” is the absolute truth that Carol and the others want to hear. “August will be insanely busy and, the good news is, you’ll have enough hands-on experience by then to handle it.”

Like everything in life, parties on both sides just want to know what to expect, even if there are a host of variables to address. An overused cliche, the word “transparency” is most appropriate in this case.

As for eager, broke newbies like Carol’s son? If the house is on the up-and-up, and you have a sincere desire to learn the kitchen, hang in there. Pay your dues, and chances are excellent you’ll have a solid job with locked down hours when the school bell rings next summer.

Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to [email protected], and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.

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