CNN Is Stiffing the Waiters at Its RNC Celebrity HangoutS

At both the Republican and Democratic conventions, CNN sponsored a splashy, invitation-only club called the CNN Grill to promote its unique brand of ponderous and dull cable-news fare to the press and politicians. You had to be on a list to get in, and Ari Fleischer was there, so you felt important. The drinks and food were free and—I can tell you from personal experience—it was constantly packed to capacity. And now the waiters and bartenders who worked at the Grill's Tampa, Fla., operation at the RNC are accusing CNN of not paying a promised tip.

CNN contracted various food-service operations to get the grill up and running at the RNC, and those contractors hired waiters for the three-day gig to make sure all those VIPs got their french fries in a timely fashion. According to waiter Samantha Fenwick, who put in 72 hours (including training time) at the Tampa CNN Grill, the pay was $10/hour with the promise of a "huge" tip at the end from CNN. That tip still hasn't come.

Fenwick says that she and her colleagues—there were about 16 to 20 waiters, bartenders, and foodrunners working the front-of-the-house for the Tampa operation—wouldn't have taken on the back-to-back 16-hour days the job entailed without substantially more than $10 per hour. "It was a lot of back-breaking work, with maybe one break a day," she says. "We could have made more money at our regular jobs, but the whole presentation of this event was, 'You're going to make ridiculous money. CNN is going to pay a tip at the end, and they're spending $2 million on this event—you do the math.'"

The waitstaff got their regular paychecks. But more than two months later, none of them have gotten the promised tip from CNN, despite a weeks-long campaign to get answers. Beginning in September, Fenwick and her colleagues started asking Amerivents and Civic Entertainment Group (CEG), the two contractors handling front-of-house operations, as well as CNN itself, where their tips were. They got either silence or shrugged shoulders in response: CNN and CEG completely ignored them, and Amerivents explained that it couldn't help them until CNN released the promised funds, which it had not done.

It wasn't until I made inquiries at CNN this week that Fenwick finally got an answer: While the checks still haven't been cut yet, she and other waiters were finally told yesterday how much they can expect from CNN. And the numbers were underwhelming: Fenwick, who clocked more than 72 hours—most of those over the course of three very long days—will be getting $329. Everyone else she has spoken with is getting less than that.

"That's just insulting," she says. "I worked back-to-back 16 hour shifts for three days at a packed event. Even if you assume I was getting 15% tips from customers, I would have made way more than $329 in tips that time." Of course, when you combine that with her $10 wage and overtime pay, Fenwick's total compensation averages out to $15/hour—which is nothing to sneeze at as far as food-service goes. But other CNN Grill workers say they could have been making more at their regular jobs, which they took time off from for the promise of a big payout.

"I average $20 to $25/hour just waiting and bartending at my regular job," says Sean Kupper, who logged 59 hours as a server and was told yesterday to expect a tip in the $220 to $300 range. "I could have worked the same amount of hours and made more money. Instead, I worked under these very stressful and demanding conditions—14 to 16 hour days with no real breaks—for less." Based on what his managers and other staffers had told him about what CNN would be paying as a tip, Kupper says he anticipated pulling in $1,500 to $2,000. Assuming he gets a $300 tip, his after-taxes pay will come to $863.

Since the food was free, almost none of the servers received tips directly from the clientele, by the way. Kupper says he got exactly three tips out of the hundreds of tables he served over the course of the RNC. Two of them were from CNN crew members. According to Fenwick, servers were explicitly told to reject tips and to tell any generous customers that "CNN will take care of us."

I called CNN, CEG, and Amerivents for comment. None responded.

[Image via CNN]