Bait and Switch: Companies Promise Workers Pay Rates In Ads They Don't Deliver On
"They said if they gave me that they would have to give everyone that"
Employers are using a bait and switch strategy to get prospective employees in the door for an interview, promising high wages in help wanted ads that aren’t matched in eventual job offers.
The practice isn’t new. But its use today stands in stark contrast with complaints from employers that they can’t fill positions.
I asked working people about dishonest salary offers and how that’s affected whatever trust they had in employers to begin with.
Here’s what they told me.
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“I had no choice”
When companies advertise for positions with higher wages than they’re willing to pay, it’s often a transparent attempt to lowball job-seekers until the prospective employer lands on someone desperate enough to take the offer.
Alex, a 35-year-old who recently moved to Miami, answered a posting through the online employment marketplace Snagajob offering $16 an hour to work in a technology sales position at Staples. At the end of the interview, the manager revealed that the pay was actually $10 an hour.
“When I replied that the posting for the job clearly said $16 an hour, he chuckled a bit and said ‘key holders don't even make that much, I think the highest paid position is about $13 an hour,’” Alex told me. “I had no choice but to take the job while pursuing other opportunities but I was very put off that companies are allowed to outright lie about a position's compensation.”
The low pay has a ripple effect, Alex explained.
“I'm sure I don't need to remind you that $10 an hour in Miami, even at full-time, doesn't even cover rent and utilities, let alone food, gas, and car insurance,” Alex said.
Even if the job-seeker doesn’t take the bait, the damage is done.
Caleb, a 23-year-old recent college graduate in Tennessee, was offered $17 an hour for a night shift position at a nearby styrofoam manufacturing plant. After going to the interview, being shown around, and expressing interest, Caleb was instead offered $13 an hour instead because of his lack of experience—though the listing had only said experience was “preferred.”
“I'm not sure how much experience I need to feed rubber into a hot styrofoam machine,” Caleb said. “Left the interview with nothing but time wasted and morale at an all time low.”
Tricks of the trade
Corporations will lure in staff with false promises—sometimes the deception only becomes clear in the first paycheck. Lance, a 27-year-old in Maryland, answered a job listing at Vetco, the pet welfare clinic in Petco. The company offered $15 an hour in its listing, but the salary was really $11 an hour to start, with two raises in the first six months.
But as Lance found, that’s not the way it goes down in practice.
“I only knew like two or three out of like 10 people who worked there longer than a year,” he told me. “Everyone else was making only $11 or $12.”
Some companies even misrepresent the kind of employee they’re looking for in order to get applications.
Movie theater chain Cinemark posted a listing for an assistant manager at its Denton, Texas store recently for $14 an hour. When Brian, a Denton resident with supervision experience, applied on the website, he was given an interview for the job over the phone. Brian double-checked to make sure the job was as advertised—only to find out that the position they were really looking for was a regular team member at $8 an hour.
“I told them I applied on their website for the assistant manager opening, and they said, ‘I don’t know why that listing is still on our website, sorry,’” Brian told me. “Huge waste of time.”
The listing for assistant manager is still up, but the pay promise has been removed.
“Look at the benefits they say they offer,” Brian said. “Teasing people. I asked about the benefits too and they said they only have those for full time management staff, which they weren't hiring for.”
Another trick employers use is advertising jobs at their training rate, particularly in businesses that rely on clients. Trent, a 26-year-old in Austin, encountered that tactic at interviews at Gold’s Gym and the YMCA.
“It appears to be standard in the personal training industry to advertise jobs at the ‘training rate—typically $20 to $25 an hour—and talk about normal hours, 15 to 25 plus,” Trent said. “You don’t find out you’ll be working at the ‘floor rate,’ usually $8 to $10 an hour, until you sign up clients until you go to the interview.”
“The least amount they could legally pay me”
The bait and switch strategy isn’t confined to big corporations, either.
Small businesses, like the care facility Barbara worked at in Sacramento, also overpromise to prospective employees. The facility told Barbara she’d make $15 an hour—but the paperwork for the position read $13.50 an hour (California’s $14 an hour minimum wage only applies for companies with 26 or more employees).
“I was actually making the least amount they could legally pay me, but they later said ‘it balances out to $15 an hour’ after overtime because I was working 12 hour shifts,” Barbara told me.
“From what I've seen on Indeed they have it listed as $14.50 to $17.50 now, but all of us made $13.50 when I worked there, even the people who’d been there for years,” she added.
Restaurants regularly use the promise of tips to supplement their offered wages but advertise the positions paid at the top end of the supposed tips.
“The ad for my current job advertised $17 to $20 an hour,” Stephen, a central California 27-year-old, told me. Stephen asked for $17.50 an hour, based on experience. But the offer was $15 an hour—with tips, it worked out to $17.
“They're still using the tactic when there's literally no way they would pay anyone $20 an hour plus tips,” Stephen said. “When I asked for $17.50 they said if they gave me that they would have to give everyone that.”
Liz, a 19-year-old in the East Bay, told me that she was immediately suspicious when she saw a listing for servers at a local Benihana’s promising $22 an hour. Liz “assumed they averaged the amount of tips you get in a day into that price,” and she was right.
“When I went in for an interview, they said the pay was $15 an hour and tried to sell me that that was a good thing because it’s a dollar over the minimum wage here in California,” Liz said. “They also told me that all the wait staff have to split their tips each night amongst themselves and the kitchen staff equally—there is absolutely no way you’d ever make $22 an hour there.”
The practice is endemic in the industry.
“I worked for Applebees and was told that I would make $12 to $18 an hour but made only $5.50 and then received tip out which usually ended up being around $10 per day,” Heather told me.
At a Burger Lounge in the East Bay, Liz and her coworkers made $14 an hour, minimum wage, and an average of around $2 an hour more in tips. Weekends were the exception, but didn’t make up for the average, leading Liz to see the number as “deliberately misleading.”
“They made these advertisements to try to get people to apply to work there because we were very understaffed, and on the little cards, it said ‘make $18 an hour with tips!’ which is super sneaky,” Liz said.
“I quit after two weeks”
Fast food giant McDonald’s regularly misrepresents pay to prospective employees, workers told me. Lauren, a 23-year-old from Ohio, said that she answered an ad promising “up to $14 an hour” but was started at $11 an hour. The restaurant’s management promised that once Lauren met a number of prerequisites, including training requirements, she’d reach the higher wage.
“Anytime I brought it up, they said we were too busy,” Lauren said. “I quit after two weeks, and they docked my final pay to minimum wage because I quit.”
Ryan, in Montana, was promised $16 an hour to manage a local McDonalds but the actual pay was $14.50.
“They told me I had to finish a glorified 100 page homework assignment to get the $16,” Ryan said. “They did this after I accepted the position and was already a manager.”
Chain restaurant Pokemoto is guilty of the deception as well. They advertise $15 to $20 an hour in New Haven, but only pay $12 an hour plus tips, as one worker told me.
It’s a dishonest way to frame the job offer, but one—as we’ve seen—that is hardly unusual.
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