TAMPA — With its live broadcasts and free food, the CNN Grill was the place to eat and be seen during the Republican National Convention if you were a CEO, politician, celebrity journalist or movie star, but a challenging place to work if you were a waiter.
"I cannot express to you in words the amount of labor that we had to do make this happen," waiter Samantha Fenwick said of the long days, late nights, bigger-than-expected crowds and nonstop pace of the job. "Everybody's a VIP, and everybody expects to be treated like a president of a company, and they mostly are presidents of companies — or anchors or political heavy hitters."
But one thing that helped keep the waiters going was the promise of a gratuity payment once the convention was done.
"CNN will tip all staff at the end of the event if you complete your schedule," said an email sent before the convention by an executive with Amerivents, the New York-based event staffing agency that recruited Fenwick and others to wait tables at the Grill.
On Thursday, after weeks of calls to three different companies, waiters began to hear by email what to expect in the way of a post-event check. In Fenwick's case, it was $329 for about 60 hours of work.
"Unbelievable," said Fenwick, who said 16 people were trading comments about working at the Grill on a Facebook discussion group. "There's a lot of anger right now."
The waiters said the lack of communication was unprofessional and complained the checks are chintzy compared to the money that CNN put into the Grill, a bistro with a TV studio at one end and an open bar at the other.
It was just steps away from the Tampa Bay Times Forum, and with its dark polished wood and glass accents, it looked nothing like the ground floor of a parking garage, which, in fact, it was. The menu featured burgers, salads, grouper, tacos and pork sliders, plus milk shakes, local craft beer and booze — all free.
"Really insulting," said Jaime Estes, 35, of Tampa, who was told to expect a post-convention check of $354 for 57 hours of work. "It's unprofessional how long it's taken to get answers from anybody. … I don't feel like we were compensated in a timely, professional manner."
Fenwick, 31, of Tampa said "we were all expecting at least $800 to $1,000. Some were thinking closer to $2,000, but I tend to think in worst-case scenarios, which for me would have been $500."
The post-event checks come in addition to a $10-per-hour wage, with time and a half for overtime, plus nightly tips. But Fenwick said management told the staff to discourage patrons from tipping and pooled and distributed the tips at the end of each night. Estes estimated she turned in $800 in tips for the week but received less than $200 back. Fenwick said the nightly tips she received ranged from $30 to $50.
Executives from Amerivents and Civic Entertainment Group, a New York company known as CEG that ran the Grill, did not respond to calls or emails requesting comment.
CNN did, saying it provided a post-event bonus to show its gratitude.
"CEG has assured us they honored every financial commitment made and that there was always a plan for an additional bonus, which has already been sent and should be received by the Grill staff shortly," the network said in a statement. "We appreciated their hard work."
CNN also said the Grill staff signed a contract agreeing to a flat rate, which was a catering wage. The Grill was not a restaurant open to the public, but an invitation-only event space.
As for the nightly tips, "it is CNN's understanding that the staffing vendor chose to pool those gratuities and pay them out to the staff accordingly," the network said. "CNN was not responsible for handling the collection or payout of any on-site gratuities."
While the city of Tampa owns the South Regional Parking Garage where the Grill was set up, the city had nothing to do with its operation. The city normally has an agreement with the Tampa Bay Lightning regarding the use of that part of the garage, according to city spokeswoman Ali Glisson. Under its agreement with the Tampa Bay Host Committee, the city agreed to let the Lightning allow the convention to use that part of the garage.
After the convention, about 40 cafe tables and 30 lights from the Grill were donated to the city. The tables are being refinished to handle high traffic and will be used at three community centers and one art studio. The lights need some electrical work, but they are expected to be installed at the city's four art studios by the holidays.
Richard Danielson can be reached at d[email protected] or (813) 226-3403.