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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS

Fast-Food Employers Spicing Up Incentives

Restaurants: To overcome teens' reluctance to go after low-paying, part-time jobs, companies are offering flexible schedules and referral fees.

November 21, 2000|LEE CONDON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ENCINO — For most of his 20 years in business here, Fred Moseni has relied on teenage workers to fill shifts at his family restaurant, the Pizza Cookery on Ventura Boulevard.

But now, just one of his 25 employees is a teenage part timer.

"They used to walk in here looking for a job," Moseni said. "They don't walk in anymore."

Indeed, the market for teen workers in the restaurant and fast-food industries has never been tighter, said Lynne Weisensels, director of training and development for the New York-based Triarc Restaurant Group, parent company of the Arby's chain.

"The difficulty is due to the low unemployment rate that is affecting all industries," Weisensels said. "Many teens would prefer a retail environment over fast food. Quick service is sometimes thought of as harder work."

Restaurant managers say they are doing more than ever to attract and retain workers. The big chains typically offer crew members a bonus for referring friends who get hired and stay for a certain period of time.

Managers attend career fairs looking for new blood and stay in close touch with high school guidance counselors, who sometimes know teens looking for work.

The chains also have Web sites where Internet-savvy teens can get information about jobs or apply online. Some fast-food restaurants have started offering vacation and health benefits to part-time workers.

At Del Taco, application forms were included in trick-or-treat bags given to youngsters on Halloween, hoping that the children might have an older brother or sister interested in a part-time job.

At Jack in the Box, management has done away with the blue polyester-cotton blend pants that were once part of the standard uniform. Now teens can wear jeans to work.

"To a 16- or 17-year-old, getting to wear jeans is a major perk," said Brian Luscomb, a spokesman for San Diego-based Jack in the Box Inc.

The company also offers a referral program, dubbed "Turn in Your Friends for Cash," Luscomb said. Crew members get $25 if one of their friends is hired, and another $25 if the friend stays for more than 90 days.

Del Taco has a similar program, offering $100 when a friend has stayed for 60 days, and an additional $100 if a friend stays for six months more.

Cambridge Investment, a local franchisee that owns 62 Arby's restaurants in Los Angeles, is even more generous when it comes to incentives. They offer $250 to employees who refer a crew member who stays six months. The company offers $500 if a person is hired at the manager level and stays for six months. If a referred manager stays for a year, the referring employee gets an additional $500.

The company, which runs Arby's in Van Nuys and Northridge, also reviews employee performance twice a year and gives merit raises, said Marilyn Valentino, the director of operations for Cambridge.

*

Arby's also tries to be more flexible with scheduling. In the past, application forms asked when teens were "available" to work.

"Now we ask them, 'When do you want to work?' " Weisensels said.

For Carmen Littaua, 16, of Tarzana, her new job at McDonald's on Ventura Boulevard in Encino was a chance to make some new friends after her family moved to the area from Redlands.

The paycheck is important too.

"I don't want to keep asking my dad for money," said Carmen, who added that the work is fun and doesn't take too much time away from her studies.

Shirlene Lopez, Del Taco Inc.'s vice president of corporate development and design, recalls a time when more teens were like Carmen.

"Teenagers today aren't as interested in working," said Lopez, who started working at the Orange County-based chain at age 14. "Teens used to be so excited to turn 16, because they could get a job. Back then, most of the kids would work through high school at the same place."

Nicole Writer, the manager for field human resources at Del Taco, has noticed a correlation between the affluence of a neighborhood and the difficulty in finding teen workers.

A human resources professional for 12 years, Writer said the four years she has spent recruiting teen workers for Del Taco have been much more challenging than her previous jobs in the field.

As the holidays approach, finding new workers is even harder, she said, especially because fast-food outlets generally pay the minimum wage of $5.75 an hour.

"We're competing . . . with retail stores that might pay $7 to $8 an hour," Writer said.

Representatives of all the chains said they encourage young workers to stay with them beyond their high school years.

"It's rare that people would walk in the door with that mind-set," said Tessie Haden, McDonald's operations manager for the San Fernando Valley region. "But we do try to encourage our people to stay with us and grow with us."

Haden has been with McDonald's 14 years, starting as a crew member at 19. She worked for McDonald's throughout college, eventually joining a company internship program that helped her pay for school and prepared her to move up the corporate ladder.

Despite the low unemployment rate, Haden said the McDonald's restaurants in the Valley are not experiencing the same shortage of teen workers as other fast-food restaurants.

*

At the McDonald's at Reseda Boulevard and Devonshire Street, manager Marco Garcia said just four of his 50-member staff are teenagers. He relies more heavily on older staff members who have stayed with him for several years and has a steady flow of applications from teen applicants.

Like Garcia, other chains are turning toward older workers and seniors to fill their shifts. But Weisensels said getting seniors requires targeted outreach efforts, much like those in place to get teens.

"A lot of seniors feel people don't want them," Weisensels said. "We do. We want everybody."

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