Dishin’ That: Short-Timer’s disease strikes like clockwork

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Summer is winding down for college students and other transient types working in hospitality jobs. All should have given their two-week notice by now, so management can act accordingly. For those attending school locally, the same goes for revised work availability.

Sadly, this mass departure in search of higher education doesn’t jive with the staffing needs of most venues. Here’s what happens when the hotel, restaurant or bar business is still hopping, but “one-foot-in, one-foot-out” staff comes down with the annual Short-Timer’s disease.

Service suffers because people call in sick, or don’t show, to cram in one last beach day or party night with friends.

Attention to detail suffers because Short-Timer’s disease progresses quickly. The worse cases are when employees seem to have forgotten everything they learned. This includes proper uniform requirement, table numbers, scraping plates and what time a specific shift starts.

Busing, setting-up, side-work and labor intensive closing duties all seem to be someone else’s job.

Romantic liaisons between staff members, or staff and management (happens all the time), are taken to the next level. As time winds down, things often heat up.

“We were just going to hang out a little bit this summer and keep it chill,” said a 21-year old server heading back to a competitive university in Chicago. “It was going to be like a summer fling, but I love him. Now, I almost wish I could transfer and stay here. ”

Personality conflicts or mutual dislikes that have been simmering below the surface are likely to explode. No longer needing to behave in order to keep a job, I’ve seen fights break out in the kitchen and in the ladies room more than once.

Lots of sucking up to ownership and management takes place as planners (and really broke kids) jockey for position next summer.

After-hours partying, and in some cases, during-hours partying, increases steadily as the final days draw closer.

Management (many are not immune from air-borne contact symptoms of Short-Timer’s disease) are in denial. Exhausted by mid-August, the urgent need to switch from day-to-day survival mode to quick-action hiring and training seems monumental.

The signs, symptoms and fallout of the Short-Timer’s epidemic can be unique, and varies from place to place. But very few places slide into shoulder season without some touch of the disease.

No matter the experience, awareness or planning, there’s no vaccination for this annual occurrence. Best of luck to those establishments facing it, and of course, to all the college-bound hospitality workers.

Study hard, have fun, be safe, and stay in touch with management if you hope to return next year. A good education and following your dreams is what we wish for all of you.

But, remember, well-rounded restaurant work provides life enhancing skills that will stay with you forever.

In that vein, here’s a shout out to The Works Bakery & Cafe on Temple Street in Portland. With seven New England locations, this little company is a textbook example of employee consideration and appreciation.

The result? Retention, honesty, loyalty and great service.

All counter-tipped employees receive at least $10.10/hour and share three company-paid parking passes to the garage next door (at $4.50 per hour, the Temple Street garage is the city’s priciest parking real estate.) Staff receives a 50 percent discount on all products, if they are working or not. Most have a full-time, set schedule, with very little turnover.

While Old Port lunch spots, coffee shops and bakeries have come and gone, The Works combines the best principles of corporate resources and responsibility with a “Buy Local” mentality. The food is good. It’s freshly baked, prepared to order and fairly priced. The cafe has a steady stream of loyal customers, and a visibly happy staff. Other establishments should take note.

The only reason I know all this is because even though she is a full-time college student, my daughter has worked at The Works for four years. Jokingly calling her the “Golden Child,” long-time management has never failed to find her shifts when she’s home during the school year. That, and she has worked almost daily over the past four summers.

Schedule shuffling of this nature is priceless and takes team work, but it’s been a mutually beneficial situation. The staff there is tight, and they welcome her revolving door.

Like many of the college kids mentioned above, my daughter’s last work day is early next week. Loving the job security, supportive management and co-workers turned friends, she says the best part is knowing there will be a tip envelope with her name on it. It will no doubt, be waiting patiently in the safe, until Labor Day Weekend.

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 nladd@theforecaster.net, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.

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