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Wesley Beshears says he's struggling to make ends meet. He's responded to countless restaurant job posts, but it's not easy out there. Sometimes, he says,

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The Ethics of Working Interviews, Otherwise Known as Working for Free

chef Mug.jpg
Wesley Beshears says he's struggling to make ends meet. He's responded to countless restaurant job posts, but it's not easy out there. Sometimes, he says, restaurants have requested he come in for an interview that includes "showing his stuff" -- working in the kitchen and preparing dishes during a trial shift -- all without compensation. It's a tough job market, and with the added pressure of needing to work for free in order to land a job, it can feel even tougher.

Working interviews, or employers asking a prospective employee to prove their job skills on-site, has become common practice in the hiring process, especially in the restaurant industry. However, when the unpaid interviews produce a sellable product, it raises legal and ethical questions about workers' rights to compensation.

"It has been a food industry standard," says Julie Twiggs, general manager of Mighty-O Donuts. "It's part of the interview process, so instead of having two or three interviews, applicants can see the job itself and if they would like to do it."

Mighty-O has conducted unpaid working interviews for the last five years, and Twiggs says she has seen the practice used over the last 10 years in many Seattle restaurants. However, Twiggs says working interviews have "probably grown a little bit, and are having an effect everywhere."

Some restaurants, such as Blue Moon Burgers, pay minimum wage for a two- to four-hour working interview. Others, such as Pasta and Co. do not pay, but provide perks, like a free lunch. As for restaurants that do not pay at all, Twiggs acknowledges there may be ethical issues with not compensating these prospective employees, but says Mighty-O has never addressed them.

Working interviews may be becoming commonplace when landing a food industry job, but the Washington State Department of Labor and Industry is quick to remind that a business still has legal obligations to pay someone for work they perform.

"There is no such thing as a working interview," says Elaine Fischer, a spokeswoman for the L&I. "An employee needs to be paid if they are working."

The catch is L&I's power to enforce the law is limited to processing claims and complaints. Fischer says there is little L&I can do in terms of prevention, except raise awareness of the law.

"The more people know about it, the less likely it is to happen," Fischer says.

Fischer says it is not unusual to hear complaints about the practice, and notes that L&I has processed many claims against businesses who failed to pay prospective employees for working. However, Seattle-based attorney Steve Teller says prosecuting a claim in court is difficult and unrealistic.

"It's not a simple question," says Teller, who practices employment law at Teller and Associates. "It is clear that once you are hired, training and orientation do need to be paid, but in terms of interviews, they are voluntary."

Teller has never seen a case in court over lost wages from a working interview, probably because the monetary amount lost is too small. If each prospective employee only loses up to $30 in wages, it is difficult to enforce, Teller says.

Beshears, who has spent time as a line cook and pantry chef, is currently still looking for work. He says working interviews make him feel like a "commodity," and he's concerned about workers' rights should he get injured during the interview.

"If I get hurt, I'm going to have to sue them," says Beshears.

Fischer says that workers' compensation should be covered during the interview, and workers can file a claim with L&I to be compensated for injury.

Aaron Peets, who has worked in catering and restaurants for the last seven years, recently moved to Portland and began encountering working interviews. He speculates that many employers take advantage of working interviews to gain free labor in a tough economy, and he questions the ethics of free labor when applicants can't afford to give this time for free.

"I understand if restaurants want to see if you work in the environment well, but people manipulate it," Peets says. "For me, it seems like a recipe for exploitation."

Despite these concerns, working interviews are becoming increasingly necessary for those hoping to land a job in the restaurant and service industry. Pasta and Co., Blue Moon Burgers, and Mighty-O all say between 60 to 80 percent of the applicants they hire have participated in a working interview.

And with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting an unemployment rate of 8.3 percent in Washington state, there are a lot of people willing to work a few hours for free to finally get that job.

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