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Samantha Bee Is Changing the Workplace, and She’s Not Alone

From TV studios to professional kitchens, women employers are pushing paid leave, childcare and work-life balance.

Samantha Bee. Photo by Mary Ellen Matthews

“For a country that basically fetishizes pregnancy, we sure do f*** over new parents when it comes to paid parental leave,” Samantha Bee said three weeks ago, announcing that her late night show, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, is now offering all employees 20 weeks of fully paid parental leave. “Our country’s policies are some of the worst in the world, mostly because they don’t exist.”

Citing statistics that paid parental leave—which is national policy in 106 countries—lowers the risk of postpartum depression, promotes infant health and boosts the economy, Bee challenged her male colleagues in late night television to implement the same or better policies.

Though her language is blunter than that of most employers, Bee is part of a growing cohort of female entrepreneurs insisting on progressive employment standards. From health insurance and childcare to benefits for developing “side hustles,” a new generation is championing a more holistic approach to employee compensation.

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Granular numbers are difficult to find, but observers of workplace culture say the trend toward more enlightened employment practices is growing. Service and retail jobs that have traditionally offered little beyond an hourly wage are offering more generous policies, notes Julie Sitch, vice president at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans and a 30-year veteran of the employment practices industry.

“It’s largely driven by what’s going on with the economy, and how challenging it is for employers to fill their openings,” says Sitch. “They’re seeing the importance and value of applying benefits beyond the rudimentary healthcare with huge deductibles. They’re asking, ‘How can we get employees to want to stay?’”

Katie Button. Photo by Evan Sung

Asheville, N.C., chef Katie Button offers her employees 401K plans, medical benefits and life insurance. In New York, restaurateur Camilla Marcus has developed a host of innovative practices designed to empower employees at her Westbourne café. Salad chain Sweetgreen offers five months of paid parental leave for part and full time employees, Chicago’s Honey Butter Fried Chicken restaurant provides 12 weeks of fully or partially paid family leave based on tenure and employees of chain restaurant Noodles get six weeks of paid maternity leave and adoption assistance.

“Anecdotally, I’d say that if the owners of the businesses are younger, they’re thinking about the things they themselves would like to see,” Sitch says. “Parental and family leave is very much on the minds of people who are thinking about starting families and/or taking care of elderly relatives.”

Indeed, paid family leave can be an important incentive to employees in their early 30s, who are the most likely to leave their jobs, according to a June 2019 PwC study.

“Twenty-seven percent of employers say employee turnover is the number one challenge to their people strategy,” the report says. “The figure rises to 48 percent among employers with an average employee age between 30 and 34.” 

Employers are also getting savvier about career development.

Left: Camilla Marcus. Photo by Ben Rosser. Right: Westbourne exterior. Photo by Nicole Franzen

“We need to be much more dynamic and flexible in how we hire, inspire and keep our teams,” says Westbourne café’s Marcus, who holds a JD/MBA from New York University and an associate degree from New York’s International Culinary Center.

A onetime executive for restaurateurs Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio, Marcus, 34, is determined to eradicate divisions between roles in her café, and trains each of her 25 workers to perform every job, from bussing tables to cooking, preparing coffee drinks and pouring wine.

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“I just saw the track system wasn’t really working. To me it’s a missed opportunity: Why wouldn’t you want to keep someone who’s wonderful and just train them into something else? Why should it be someone’s job solely to wash dishes?” she asks.

“Upward mobility, although a lot of restaurateurs talk about that, is not real. Very few porters make it to any other position. I don’t think we should be supporting a caste system. I think it should be about upward mobility, and social mobility, and education, and helping someone become the holistic form of themselves, not closing those doors.”

Marcus also contributes to her Soho neighborhood, donating 1 percent of all sales to the adolescent advocacy program The Door, and offering a monthly $35 stipend to all workers, with the idea of encouraging them to enjoy their “side hustle.”

“The idea is really just to have that monthly continuing education, or inspiration, or wellness,” she says.

In a significant advance for restaurant workers, Marcus is advocating for flexible childcare. Last summer, she convinced childcare startup Vivvi to extend their hours to cover shift workers. Marcus buys 100 credits of childcare a month for her employees, and after taxes, the childcare credits cost her about $50 each.

Westbourne staff. Photo by Karissa Ong

Our industry only relatively recently started talking about healthcare as a base benefit, and now it is. That wasn’t the case when I started out,” says Marcus, who has a 4-month-old son. “Parental leave is another new thing that people are talking about. The truth is parental leave doesn’t really matter if we can’t figure out what to do with your children when you get back.”

Vivvi cofounder and CEO Charles Bonello says Marcus is part of an important evolution. Increasingly, employers understand the need to provide childcare to workers in fields with nontraditional office hours, like hospitality and healthcare.

“I’d kind of flirted with everything from extended hours to 24/7, but Camilla was really the force that drove it home. She was so committed to offering something equitable to her folks that really helped them when they needed it most: after hours and on the weekends,” says Bonello. “She’s really shrewd, thoughtful and mission-driven. We’re already open from 7 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. This is about extending it even further to be able to accommodate working families with nontraditional schedules.”

In Asheville, N.C., Button also offers her 134 full-time employees healthcare, including vision and dental benefits, as well as matching 401k contributions, life insurance, paid time off and a $300 wellness reimbursement.

Button, who runs both Cúrate, her much lauded tapas bar, and the popular Button & Co. Bagels, says that she’s been able to expand benefits each year since she founded the business nine years ago.

“Our long-term goal and vision is to make the restaurant industry a career. To do that, we have to figure out a way to get people through all the moments of their lives with a living wage, predictable scheduling and the ability to have conversations with their employer about what their needs are,” Button says.

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Button, who studied biochemical engineering before turning to food, freely admits that offering benefits can be daunting.

“Costs are high in the restaurant industry, profit margins are low and the first hurdle is not understanding what a benefit is actually going to cost,” she says. “You typically want to look at it as worst case scenarios. What if everyone maxed out their benefits? Looking at it that way can make it seem insurmountable. When you approach it one step at a time, you start to realize that some people won’t take advantage of the benefits, and you start to gain more confidence.”

Like Marcus, Button is motivated to help her employees maintain a work-life balance. She recently hired more managers, a move that allows her employees to have a 40-hour work week.

The mother of an 18 month-old boy and a 5-year-old girl, Button, 36, also learned firsthand how difficult it was to pump breastmilk in the employee bathroom. The experience led her to retrofit storage areas at Cúrate and the bagel shop, turning them into lactation rooms.

For all of Button’s progress, some challenges remain. Tipping, for example, creates deep wage disparities that preclude her from offering 401k plans to some tipped workers, she says, but customer perception has prevented her from eliminating the practice.

That gets to part of a bigger question about social equity, she notes.

“We’ve created important benefits to support daily lives, but I want to work on training and education as well, not just how to cook, but how to be managers of a team,” she says. “How do we push on the culture that we create in our restaurants? How do we make employees aware of gender and racial equity and how do we have the conversations? That’s what’s next.”

Like Button, Marcus is driven by societal concerns, and has committed to having her café certified as a “zero waste” restaurant, a rigorous process that involves proving that she has diverted more than 90 percent of what would be trash away from landfills.

“Westbourne will be the first freestanding restaurant to be TRUE [Zero] Waste certified globally,” says industry consultant Christina Mitchell Grace, CEO of the Foodprint Group, which works with restaurants to reduce their environmental impact. “It’s wildly comprehensive in terms of the certification requirement, but Camilla is an example that it’s totally doable, and you don’t have to have a large budget. It’s just a matter of putting the procedures and designs in place.”

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Besides being admirable, the policy makes good business sense, says Ron Naples, an adjunct associate professor at the NYU School of Professional Studies Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality.

“Reducing waste is going to become more common because of accounting practices. That’s a practice every restaurateur should be doing,” he says. “Collect it, weigh it and deduct it at the end of the month. Measuring the waste and giving it a value encourages restaurants not to waste so much, and good culinarians are being trained better not to waste. It’s a matter of economics and getting value out of everything you bought.”

Questions of value, both material and conceptual, are driving decisions by employers like Bee, Button and Marcus.

It’s financially beneficial to have a company filled with happy, well-loved employees. There are no downsides.

“I think the biggest challenge is always convincing any corporation that this will actually benefit a company, but the studies have been done,” says Alison Camillo, one of Bee’s executive producers. “It’s financially beneficial to have a company filled with happy, well-loved employees. There are no downsides.”

Small employers like Marcus acknowledge that instituting progressive benefits can pose difficulties, but they say the onus is far outweighed by the opportunities to foster more equitable workplaces, ones that they hope will have broader societal implications.

“It might be a little bit harder to implement or figure out because there’s no precedent, but we hope to be an example for others that in every single business we can choose what kind of career pathways we want to support,” she says. “You can live your own values, create a new ecosystem and have an impact.”

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