Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front- and back-of-house about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favourite establishments. This time, we hear from a chef in Buenos Aires about what it's like to be sued by your own waiter.
I never imagined that after my restaurant sponsored my waiter's work visa, he'd sue me as soon as he could legally stand on two feet.
My head cook knew a guy—let's call him John—who'd moved to Buenos Aires from Europe, who was looking for work. My husband and business partner tried out a couple of people but John had way more presence, dressed well, served wine well, had plenty of salon experience, spoke three languages, and made the diners laugh. We hired him over a native Argentine.
Plus, since he was a friend of our cook and needed the money, we thought, "Let's give him a job." In the US, rule number one is: don't hire anyone illegally. We should have put him on the books but he didn't have a visa. And, while I wouldn't normally do something like that, given that it's common for staff to moonlight and be paid on a daily basis in Argentina, we hired him anyway.
Famous last words. We basically gave John the power to sue us. I know it's just fucking money but he sued us for so much and we'd had so many expenses opening a second restaurant that we're still paying him off in instalments.
John worked well two or three nights a week, eventually asking the restaurant to apply for a visa on his behalf. As chef-owner, I was registered as self-employed at the time which didn't allow me to do so, but once we became an SRL (limited liability company), we could and we did because we liked him. He was really happy but, when we signed the paperwork, he mentioned something—and that's when we should have picked up on the signs. He said: "If you hadn't got me the visa, I would have sued you."
In Argentina, when an employee files a lawsuit against their employer, nine times out of ten, they win because of the way the legal system is set up. It backs the employee and not the employer.
It's so ridiculous, people who've never worked for you can say they worked for you, present fake witnesses, and still win—even though it's a pack of lies. It sucks. You feel helpless. And, you have to think twice about owning a business in this country. I say that now, but I never thought about all those things because I'm a cook and all I wanted to do was serve good food.
John's attitude started to change after he got his work permit. I'd ask him to do something and he wouldn't do it or he'd ignore it. Then he got angry when we changed how we divided up tips. We used to split them 50/50 between the two waiters and the kitchen, where there were more staff who worked longer shifts. The waiters were making 25 percent each or around 600 pesos [£30] each for around six hours' work beside their salaries, while the dishwasher made 200 pesos [£10], working nine hours. We made a corporate decision to split it fairly between everyone.
I feel like we were legally extorted. I'm so hurt, I feel I'll never be safe, and have to look over my shoulder with every one of my employees.
He was upset about earning less money but tips are tips, we don't pay them. In fact neither waiter liked the idea and the restaurant manager let the whole staff know the waiters didn't want the kitchen to get extra tips. The two waiters even suggested we pay the kitchen more, though we were paying them exactly what their union categories stipulated. That's when things got rough.
A few months after getting his work permit, John got in a fight with the restaurant manager. We needed a babysitter and he suggested his girlfriend. We were at work and he wanted to leave to pick up his girlfriend. I'd already left and the restaurant manager had two more hours to go, and John got upset because he wouldn't drive him to my house and would have to fork out on a taxi to pick her up. The day after, John blew up again and was told if he didn't change his attitude, we'd have to let him go.
He said: "Go on then, fire me, fire me." After that argument, I was like, "What the fuck is going on here?" He was obviously pissed off about making less money from tips. That's when my husband sacked him. But we made the mistake of not "writing him up" as soon as he didn't do something or was being an arsehole, so we'd have proof to back us up.
We sent off the letter of dismissal but John came back with a legal document saying we'd never paid his vacation—which we had. We sent back another legal document and his counter response was to sue for 700,000 pesos worth of tips, unpaid holidays, even for days he hadn't worked.
Our first lawyer gave us bad advice—that settling immediately wasn't a priority—while the second advised us to settle as soon as possible else it could go into the millions. And we'd go bankrupt.
When we went to settle, John asked for 70,000 pesos [£3,550] but we didn't have that kind of money: we were in the midst of opening our second restaurant and had borrowed from my grandpa, my in-laws, from everyone we could in order to launch. We really didn't have any money. We thought he'd accept 30,000 pesos but he said no. We offered 50,000 pesos, but still said no. He also turned down 100,000 pesos.
We settled at 129,000 pesos, which we're paying in six instalments because we can't afford to pay a lump sum. We have to pay his lawyer as well as ours.
Another blow. After firing John and in the middle of his suing us, the second member of wait staff got him a job with a friend and colleague of mine. I notified my friend, assuming he'd get rid of him. He didn't. And John still works there today. That colleague and I aren't friends anymore.
I'm at that restaurant every day and night, I've got kids, and we work our arses off constantly. That guy came in, worked six to seven hours a night, two or three times a week, and he's taking the money we work so hard for every day of our lives.
I feel like we were legally extorted. I'm so hurt, I feel I'll never be safe, and have to look over my shoulder with every one of my employees. I trusted him and it really hurts—how could he do this to me, knowing I don't have a ton of money?
I feel betrayed by John, betrayed by the waitstaff who recommended him for for another job, and betrayed by the restaurateur who hired him. I'm really fucking angry about that and I can't ever be friends with him again. You just don't do that to a colleague.
It also hurts that's he taking all this money from me, but it's just fucking money, whatever, I'll get over it. But what really hurts is the trouble it's caused between me and my husband.
Karma's a bitch, though, and one day it will bite both of them in the arse.
As told to Sorrel Moseley-Williams.