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Black Market Cafe

[whitespace] cafe barter
Photo illustration by Robert Scheer

Dough, Raise, Me: Young employees of downtown businesses may not be rolling in dough, but they sidestep the work ethic and find other ways to get the goods they need.

Local service workers have set up an informal rip-off barter system, but it's not about the stuff--they're after justice

By Traci Hukill

THE GUY FROM THE burger place walks into the Santa Cruz cafe with a bag of French fries and leaves with a double espresso. The cocktail waitress from the bar down the street takes a free mocha before her shift with a wink, and sets a few beers on the table later on when the folks from the cafe come in after work. In another part of town, the pizza- delivery guy has just pulled into a bakery parking lot with an extra-large vegetarian pie for his friends there. He leaves with a bag full of free bagels and a big smile.

A few years ago, a core group of workers at the cafe had become fed up with low pay, erratic scheduling and indifferent management. Wedding justification to revenge, the employees began pilfering.

The policy on employee meals was already generous--they could eat as much as they wanted for free--but people started taking food home, too. One employee would load up on stale (and sometimes-not-so-stale) pastries each night and walk out with a full sack under each arm. And employees started surreptitiously giving away coffee drinks now and then. It didn't seem like any big deal, and the managers, if they knew about it, didn't let on.

Most of the employees had friends in similar low-end service jobs who returned the favor, giving them free beer, pizza, ice cream, whatever. The cafe workers' subsidized generosity increased with time, overflowing into the remaining ranks of the staff and expanding to include a wider sweep of beneficiaries. No longer just close friends but agreeable acquaintances, whether they had anything to trade or not, could walk in and get a free almond mocha or double-strength light roast drip coffee.

Within a year the trade ethic, as well as the giveaway ethic, was firmly in place, something several generations of new employees at this cafe, where supervision was minimal and turnover was high, had come to accept as part of the place's culture. Everyone was happy, even management, whose benign ignorance enabled the operation to continue. Business jumped, just like it always had, and morale in the place was high.

There isn't any question that those employees were stealing. It may not have felt like it because they weren't opening up the cash drawer and yanking the money out, but they were definitely violating the Seventh Commandment. Talk to them, though, and they'll say they felt justified. They weren't paid enough to live on, they felt expendable and they had no reason to care about the place. The rip-off, they say, goes both ways.

American businesses lose as much as $40 billion a year to dishonest employees. An entire "loss-prevention service" industry, which manufactures security cameras, has sprung up to warn business owners about the perils of employees who think they're underpaid, overworked or somehow allowed to steal just a little bit. One such company's Web site claims that two out of three employees will steal if given the opportunity.

But the truth is that no one really knows how much employees steal, not even store owners. What they do know is that employee theft happens all the time and that, short of constant surveillance, almost nothing can be done about it.

Insider Trading

TIM BRANSEN (A PSEUDONYM) has been in business in Santa Cruz for 16 years. Although he agreed to be interviewed for this story, he asked that his name not be used because he's trying to sell his restaurant and doesn't want to scare potential buyers away with horror stories. Employee theft has plagued his business for years, he says.

"It's absolutely a problem, from toilet paper to stealing other products," he says. "I interpret it lots of ways, including giving food away. Once I came in, and everyone was having a blast. They said, 'Oh, we traded some food with Jack's [Hamburger Stand].' I didn't authorize that. A memo went up saying 'no trades.' I fire people for that."

Connie Hutchinson, who owns Jack's, doesn't mind if her employees trade food with other businesses because she feeds her workers one meal a day anyway. "My employees get tired of burgers, and the pizza parlor's employees get tired of pizza," she explains. "Basically, it's the same cost for me."

But Bransen considers it theft. And he's experienced overt theft as well.

"I had a ring of people last summer who stole from me blind," he says. "They had the paperwork all figured out. But you can get screwed, blued and tattooed as an employer if you accuse someone of theft and can't prove it."

Jim Jackson of the Santa Cruz District Attorney's office says that what many business owners accept as loss from shoplifting is actually due to employee theft. In a town where petty theft, burglary and shoplifting far outpace other crimes, that indicates a serious problem.

But Jackson, like Bransen, says accusing an employee of theft is risky.

"If you accuse someone of theft and it's not true, you've defamed them," he says. "It can be very costly depending on who the person is.

"But you can take preventative measures. I talked to someone the other day who hired a security guard and installed cameras. You can hire someone to do a background check. It's less than a hundred bucks. It's worth it."

A little quick math, however, shows that $100 background checks on employees who may only stay for a few weeks or a couple of months might not be so cost effective. That leaves security cameras--an option Bransen finds repugnant.

"I hate the idea of an eye in the sky," he says. "But if I were starting from scratch, I would be into a camera because you gotta let 'em know you mean business.

"Boy, I started out a whole lot different," he says wearily. "But when you've been victimized as much as we have, things start becoming very simple."

Colleen Crosby, co-owner of Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company, isn't interested in installing a camera even though she believes theft is a problem for her downtown store.

"I think there are some basic procedures you can do that will discourage people," she says. "I think most people have integrity. For some people, maybe they have a drug problem. I don't know.

"I think the individual who steals is forfeiting the biggest loss. If you don't have that certain sense of integrity, then you've lost a sense of the value of life. Life is too short for that."

Food Chain Gang

PETE RANDALL (who for obvious reasons asked that his real name not be used) was working at the cafe described in the beginning of this article when the trade ring began in earnest. Likable and responsible, he considers himself a hard worker and a good employee. Management thought so, too.

Within three months of being hired, he was supervising his co-workers. Nevertheless, he caught the trade bug.

He hadn't stolen from his employers before, and he doesn't steal now because, as he puts it, "the lady who owns the store I work in now is running her store and raising her kids and working her butt off. She's a great lady. I don't steal now because I don't want to." But at the cafe his work ethic faltered. Managerial incompetence, he says, eroded any respect he had for his employers. "I got jerked around so much early on that I
didn't mind giving stuff away," he shrugs.

Randall felt a little cheated after the owner refused to give him a raise when he was made a supervisor. Worse than the paltry $5-an-hour pay was management's disregard for his suggestions, he says.

"I was trying to care, and they wouldn't let me," he says, exasperated. "They wouldn't listen to me. I used to care about the company and try to make a difference. I'd say, 'You know, people want this' or 'They're asking for that,' and nothing would ever change."

Talking about his work life, Randall doesn't exactly quote Karl Marx, even though he's describing Marx's notion of "alienation." It's the idea that the people who do the grunt work aren't allowed to have an investment in the product. That distance between workers and what they do or make is what turns labor into drudgery--and makes it easy for workers not to care about what they do.

Bransen, like many small businessmen, dismisses the link between low pay and a bad attitude. "The people who really want to work, they'll work no matter what you pay them. The others--you can throw money at them and they still won't work.

"People are motivated by two things: greed and fear. I've got people working for seven, eight, nine dollars an hour, and they still steal from me. And they justify it. They say 'He owes me a living.' I've heard it all."

Bransen is a hardworking man who's trying to raise a family and make a decent living for himself. Like many small businessmen, he worked his way up from the bottom of the economic food chain, and the idea that he owes anybody anything is preposterous to him.

The rags-to-riches myth that propels American business calls poverty "paying your dues" and promises that things will get better.

The employee who makes not quite enough money to cover rent, so the mythology goes, will eventually land a better-paying job. But the myth doesn't account for the under-education, underemployment and stagnating economies that keep people in low-paying jobs for their entire lifetimes.

It also stands opposite the humanistic notion that people who work full-time should be able to feed, clothe and house themselves.

Real Change

ACROSS THE NATION, a movement to secure for working people a "living wage"--over and above the minimum wage--is gathering strength. Its main proponent, the Wisconsin-based New Party, has won living-wage ordinances in Baltimore, Minneapolis and even Santa Clara County for workers whose employers get government contracts.

According to the New Party, "hardworking people should be able to afford the necessities of life for themselves and their families."

Last year, Congress raised the minimum wage, after five years at $4.25, to $5.15 an hour. California, rightly realizing that $5.15 an hour is not a realistic wage, raised the state minimum wage to $5.75 effective March 1, 1998, and called it the "Living Wage Initiative."

But living-wage proponents point out that while $5.75 per hour may be a living wage in West Texas or even in eastern California, it clearly doesn't cut it in San Francisco or Hollywood.

And it doesn't cut it in Santa Cruz, either.

The nonprofit organization Wider Opportunities for Women came out recently with a self-sufficiency standard for each of California's 58 counties. According to this index, an adult in Santa Cruz County needs to earn at least $7.90 an hour in order to achieve economic self-sufficiency.

Economists get nervous when people go raising the minimum wage. Says Ron Greeson, an economics professor at UCSC, " 'Living wage' is not an economic term. When you raise the minimum wage, it causes unemployment and inflation because the demand for labor is reduced. Employers want to hire fewer people because it's not possible to hire more people. They can't afford it."

Adam Glickman, communications director for the New Party, has heard Greeson's complaint before.

"People always say this is going to drive unemployment up and have dire consequences," Glickman says, "but study after study has shown that raising the minimum wage has little to no impact on job loss."

Besides, Glickman adds, the goal is not to suddenly jack the minimum wage up by a couple of bucks across the country but to focus at first on companies who have contracts with local governments. "The end goal is certainly to raise the minimum wage for all employees to a living wage," he concedes, "but that's not going to happen immediately. The more living-wage campaigns at the local level that affect companies, the more they'll be likely to percolate up to the state level, hopefully pressuring Congress to pass a more substantial minimum wage increase than a couple of years ago."

In the meantime, the hostility that has always burned between the haves and the have-nots continues to smolder. Employee theft is a telltale wisp of smoke, a sign of friction between the two camps.

Employers blame workers for having a shoddy work ethic, but no one considers that the Protestant work ethic is a code of behavior that supports the covenant between employee and employer: "I will work for you and protect your interests if you protect mine," not, "I will work for you and protect your interests regardless of whether or not I can secure for myself the basic necessities of life."

Until employees know they'll be taken care of in exchange for their time, or until every cafe and bakery in Santa Cruz County is equipped with surveillance cameras, the mutual rip-off will probably continue.

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From the Dec. 18-24, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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