By Dave Herwitz, Director of Admissions, ABC Training Center
A few years ago I wrote the following article for a local magazine here in New York City. It was done in response to a disturbing trend that saw scam artists taking advantage of recent immigrants, specifically from Russia. Unfortunately, these scam operations still exist and so the article remains as relevant today as it was when it was published in 2007.
“No Experience Necessary” – A cautionary tale about an employment scam aimed at young Russian immigrants.
The ad in the help-wanted section of the Russian language newspaper advertised a bartending job in Manhattan. “No experience necessary” – the ad stated.
“Julia,” a 20-year old from Moscow staying in Brooklyn for the summer on an S-1 visa, was interested. She only had a few hundred dollars to live on for her trip, and jobs were proving hard to come by. Rent in New York was expensive: she was paying $250 a month to share a small one-bedroom apartment in Coney Island with four other Russian girls. There was only one bed, and a small couch. All her roommates worked at what they referred to as the “agency”: a man who sent them out to work in the clubs as dancers and strippers, taking a large percentage of their earnings as a fee.
Julia didn’t want to do that. She considered herself an intelligent young lady, highly educated in her home country, with a talent for speaking foreign languages and a background in several customer-relations jobs at hotels around the world.
But she had no green card, no Social Security number, and no prospects in the early summer of 2007.
She decided to call the number. She was delighted when the telephone was answered by a young Russian woman, just like herself, who spoke her language. Yes, she said, they were hiring. She wanted to know if Julia had a bartending license. Julia’s heart sank for a moment. No, she answered, she didn’t. But the woman on the phone said that it was okay — they would assist her in getting her license. She was told to come to Manhattan the next day to be interviewed for the position.
Julia was excited. A job in New York, and a license! Maybe things would work out after all. She started to prepare for her interview, choosing a nice dark-blue business suit to wear. It was the most professional-looking outfit among the clothes she had brought with her from home. One thing did seem strange to her, though. The woman had answered the phone without saying the name of the bar. She had simply said, “Da.” And the address she gave for the interview was on the seventh floor of a building in Manhattan, which didn’t sound like a bar.
Julia considered this for a moment. But just for a moment
There is no such thing as a bartending license in New York State. Establishments serving alcohol must be licensed by the New York State Liquor Authority, but individual bartenders working in these establishments are not licensed by anyone. A person applying for a job as a bartender need not show any certification or documentation of any kind to an employer, outside of meeting the age requirement for serving alcohol — 18 years of age. Whether or not an establishment wishes to risk employing a non-citizen is the responsibility of the establishment. There are several bartending schools in New York State. Many of these are licensed by the New York State Department of Education. At these schools, which range in price from $200 to $900 for a 40-hour training program, students learn the basics of bartending by mixing various dyed liquids liquids behind a “practice” bar to simulate the making of cocktails. They also receive classroom instruction in cash handling, customer service, speed techniques and liquor brands, among other subjects. The curriculum and the instructors are state-approved.
Upon completion of the course, a student usually receives some type of diploma or certificate that identifies him or her as a graduate — but it is not a license, and it does not entitle a person to work as a professional bartender.
Julia arrived at 3 p.m. the following day for her interview at a small office building on Madison Avenue. The Russian woman whose voice she recognized from the phone sat behind a desk in a cramped room. There was a computer, a few large binders and a telephone. Some pictures of liquor and wine bottles were taped to the wall.
She filled out a short application. The woman told her that the opening was for a bartending job in Greenwich Village, working Saturday and Sunday daytime and a few nights a week. The money would be very good. And it would start right away. Also, Julia would be paid “off the books,” meaning her lack of U.S. citizenship would not be a problem.
She would simply need to pay a $399 fee for the processing of her bartending license.
Julia hesitated. That was practically all the money she had, and it had to last the whole summer.
But the woman told her that she had the job, that she would begin her training immediately, and that she would start earning a lot of cash in just one week. As she pondered this, she noticed several other Russian-speaking girls, and some guys, coming in to fill out applications. She feared that the offer might not last long.
And she felt comfortable speaking to the woman behind the desk. After all, she was one of her own, from home, and she seemed to understand how hard New York was.
Julia paid with four one-hundred dollar bills. She had been carrying all her money on her person since she arrived in the city; it was the only way she felt safe.
She was given a receipt. Across the bottom, the woman had added one notation by hand: “Non-refundable.”
Her training would begin the following Monday, at 6 p.m., in a small bar in the next room with five or six stools and two sofas. It was empty at the moment.
The woman congratulated her, and told her she would see her on Monday.
Many bartending schools offer job placement assistance. By law, they are not permitted to guarantee students employment as bartenders, and they must put that statement in writing, in advance. What they usually offer is access to job leads, or one-shot private parties. Some employers will call the bartending schools looking for graduates, but mostly, the schools will comb the want-ads just like an individual would, in this case hoping to make contacts for repeat hiring.
The competition among these schools for students is fierce. A school with a reputation for getting its graduates hired is the gold standard. Because of this, some schools have taken to the practice of pretending to be employment agencies. Others have taken it a step further, by pretending to be actual bars.
A visitor to a help-wanted Web site like Craigslist or Village Voice.com will find many ads for bartending jobs that turn out not to be jobs at all; they are in fact a misleading come-on for “training” programs, for the right to work at an “establishment” without prior experience. The fees are staggering, and the target of these ads, is, of course, the unemployed. It’s a slick bait-and-switch, not easy to pull off in a city full of cynics.
But it’s a lot easier when your target is young people. Easier still if you can tap into a large pool of young people, far from home, away from their parents. Young people with their summer vacation money. Young people who trust the sound of a familiar language. Young people who wouldn’t know where to turn after they’ve been had.
Like the huge new Russian immigrant community in Brooklyn, for example.
Julia’s training took four evenings, or 16 hours. There were 14 other young people training as well, and all but two were Russian. Using empty liquor bottles filled with water, they were taught how to pour liquor, how to shake and stir cocktails, and the recipes for 50 popular drinks. There was only one bar station, so they had to wait their turns, and there was little chance for practicing what they were shown. On the last day, each person got the chance to mix one drink they had learned using the real ingredients, and everyone tasted the drinks.
Before that, however, they had to pass a written exam. Some did not pass. But for $20, those people were allowed to take the same exam again, immediately, after being given the correct answers. On one occasion, a young man who had failed the exam was told that a purchase of a two-liter bottle of Grey Goose vodka would result in his grade being changed to a passing one.
Julia got all the questions on the written exam correct, and was told to come in the following Tuesday to receive her license and job. She looked forward to the opportunity to start making money, finally.
But on Tuesday, she received the same package of materials as everyone else. There was a diploma covered in plastic, certifying in broken English that she was now a professional bartender. And, there was a list of want ads, taken directly from Craigslist, for bartending jobs. They were simply re-written and issued under the office’s logo, obviously by a person who didn’t quite understand the wording of the original ads. The name of one restaurant on the list was “Upscale Restaurant,” how the original ad’s heading had read.
Julia was aghast. What about the bar in the Village, with the weekend days and the weeknights?
“Some of these are in the Village,” she was told.
“And what about my license? This doesn’t look like a license!”
The owner, a gruff man, angrily told her in Russian to get out.
Not quite believing what was happening, she tried bringing her certificate to one of the places on the list the next day. No one was expecting her. The manager had never heard of the little office on Madison Avenue. She showed him her license. The loud laughter of the manager, and of the bartender on duty, rang in her ears as she walked out. She felt the tears coming on.
Someone in her apartment building advised her to call 311, to find out how to file a complaint against the business. After being connected to what seemed like a thousand different phone numbers, she reached the Department of Education in Albany.
They were sorry, she was told, but it was not a licensed school, and therefore not subject to their regulation.
She called the Madison Avenue office. The owner answered. She was given the following instructions: “F— you. Take me to court.”
Julia, having learned a hard lesson, will be going home to Russia in a few weeks.
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