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Holidays not so happy for service industry workers

December 27, 2018
By JESSE MEADOWS (news@breezenewspapers.com) , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

The holidays are here, but for a majority of Lee County's workforce, that doesn't mean a day off.

Tourism is the engine that drives our region, and one in five people are employed by it, according to the Lee County Visitor Convention Bureau.

In 2015, 56 percent of employees on Fort Myers Beach worked in a hotel or restaurant, according to data compiled by Lee County Economic Development.

While many enjoy vacations and quality time with loved ones, service industry workers are prepping food, taking reservations, and waiting on guests.

"Even though I don't like working on the holidays, when I do, I always give the best service. I put on that happy face, but I'm not feeling it inside, you know," said Melissa Mitchell, a bartender at Sunset Beach Tropical Grill in Times Square.

The New Jersey native has been working in the hospitality industry for the last 25 years.

She requested this Christmas off so she could spend it with her 12-year-old daughter.

"I've worked every holiday for many years," she said.

This year, she'll work New Years Day, a notoriously slow day in the service industry, as many people stay home to nurse hangovers and watch football after a night of partying.

"I get to clean up after everybody the next morning!" she said, laughing. "Everybody's here late, and they're tired and they want to get out of here, so when I come in the next morning, it's like a war zone."

She described a Catch-22 of bartending during the holidays: it's busy, but people tip less, because they're spending so much on their holiday shopping.

Mitchell said she usually has all of her presents bought and wrapped two weeks before Christmas, but this year, money is tighter, due to a slow summer brought on by red tide.

"I think we're all hurting right now," she said. "I'm not even done shopping because I have no money. I don't want it to be a total credit card Christmas."

It's an issue Jenna Hendry, bartender at Nervous Nellie's, solved in a different way.

"This time of year isn't the best, before Christmas, it's pretty quiet. So I do all the shopping in April," she said.

She works Christmas day, but will get to spend a few hours in the morning with her two children.

"We'll do Christmas morning early, and then I have to be (at work) by 10," she said.

Not all restaurants on the beach are open for Christmas, though.

Johnathan Griswald, a bartender and server at Felipe's Taqueria, got lucky this year when he found out his bar wouldn't be open on the holiday.

"That's the only reason why I got it off. Last year, I was bar managing at Head Pinz, and I worked 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. on Christmas," he said.

The college student moved to the area from Miami to attend Florida Gulf Coast University.

He said he's had to make an agreement with his family - they can have him for Thanksgiving or Christmas, but not both.

This year his family chose Thanksgiving, but with Felipe's closed on Christmas, he's going to give them a special present.

"They don't know I'm not working, so I'm going down Christmas Eve to surprise them with dinner," he said.

His co-worker, Sasha, who asked the Observer not to use her last name, said she's been working more hours with the holidays approaching.

"Double shifts most of the time, right before Christmas. It's hit or miss to be honest lately. Some days are great, and some days you probably wish you never came to work," she said, laughing.

"I kind of feel like people should be more in the Christmas spirit when tipping. We don't even make minimum wage."

Florida's minimum wage is currently $8.25, but it is set to increase to $8.46 on Jan 1.

Tipped workers have a different minimum wage set at $5.23, which will also see an increase of 23 cents on the first of the year.

"I don't think a lot of them understand our minimum wage for servers is so low. I know in Minnesota, the minimum wage for serving is $9.75 an hour plus tips," said Sarah Witt, another bartender at Sunset Beach.

Mitchell says many of her guests come from places like Canada and Germany, where servers make a living wage and tips are not the bulk of their income, so they're not used to tipping the usual 15-20 percent.

Differences in tipping cultures aside, business just hasn't been busy as usual on the beach.

"I feel like not as many people are here right now that would normally be here, because of red tide," said Witt.

Mitchell agreed, noting that she felt the media scared tourists away unnecessarily.

"It wasn't as bad as the news made it out to be. We had bad days, but we had some good days, too," she said.

"You got to take the good with the bad in this business."

So it begs the question: what does a server want for Christmas?

"If the restaurant is full and everything goes smooth and you're making money, that's all you can ask for," said Witt.

 
 

 

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