In the middle of busy Grünerløkka lies The Nighthawk Diner, one of Oslo's most popular brunch spots. The restaurant is regularly packed, and in January a new location opened in Frogner. But five employees Inter Universitas spoke to say things are not as they should be.
In this piece, workers from both locations tell their stories about what they perceive to be bad working conditions and mistreatment. None of them are from Norway, and because they speak little Norwegian they have few other work options. That is why four out of five have asked to remain anonymous: they are afraid to lose their jobs.
The Nighthawk Diner management has responded to the accusations, saying they disagree with the reports from employees.
Lauren Guido (22) was the only source who would be named. She has nothing to lose.
Guido is from the United States, and studies International Development and Environmental Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Ås. She used to work at the Grünerløkka location and feels severely exploited.
For the last month she has been in a bitter conflict with the restaurant. She has not been fired, but feels frozen out.
«I was pushed out of my job,» she says.
Additionally, she alleges the restaurant did not pay her sick leave, refrained from giving her the hours she is entitled to through her contract, and did not give her breaks during long shifts. In total, she says the diner owes her over 50,000 NOK.
«On top of that, the bad working environment led to negative psychological consequences,» she says.
In March, the situation ended up with a meeting between Guido and three of the restaurant’s head management. A journalist from Universitas was there. There was massive disagreement between the parties, and no resolution was reached that day.
The Nighthawk Diner was founded by restaurant guru Jan Vardøen, who is behind several of Oslo's most famous restaurants and bars, such as pizza mecca Villa Paradiso, Bar Boca, Aku Aku, Grünerløkka brygghus and Vespa og Humla. The diner has a distinct American profile, with the overwhelming majority of employees coming from outside Norway. It is still owned by Vardøen, in addition to four other part owners.
One of them is Timon Page, a central character in the employees' stories. He works as the general manager at both locations.
«Laughed at me»
«Anna» says she had a good first impression of the workplace environment. It didn’t last very long. She says several employees have repeatedly not been paid for overtime work and public holidays. She finds it problematic to bring this up with the managers, as she says employees are then in danger of being «pushed out,» losing hours, or only getting «the worst shifts.»
«When I have tried to talk to the manager about it, he laughed at me and told me to go do my job. He doesn’t take me seriously,» she says.
Jan Vardøen, part-owner of The Nighthawk Diner
«They’re killing employee morale»
According to Anna the management does not devote adequate time or money to training new staff, only to complain about no one being adequately trained.
«They are killing the morale among us. Before Christmas, Timon said we did not deserve a Christmas party because we were so bad at our jobs,» she says. «Female employees have to wear short uniforms, even though we have said that the guests behave in a creepy way.»
Page says he never said there would not be a Christmas party for that reason.
Anna has not talked to the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority (Arbeidstilsynet), adding that the other employees have not done so either in fear of losing their jobs. According to her, the management do not tell the workers anything about Norwegian law or workers' rights, knowing the employees have no knowledge about such things.
«Both locations have very bad working conditions,» Anna says. «This was my first job outside my home country. I’ve been working since I was sixteen, and I have never felt this exploited.»
«Lucas» agrees with many of Anna's descriptions. He says he has not received paid sick leave and has not been scheduled for all the hours set down in his contract. He also described construction workers being in the kitchen while the chefs are cooking.
«When I tried to bring up the issues, I was threatened with only getting the worst shifts the next month,» he said.
«Benjamin» agrees, thinking there is a stigma against calling in sick.
«I’ve overheard someone call in sick, when the manager after hanging up has said «bullshit, he’s just lying».»
He also says waiters as well as chefs must do tasks that are not actually theirs.
«It’s very chaotic.»
Culture of fear
«Arnold» told Inter Universitas there is a high degree of turnover among the employees. He says people quit regularly, and some have been frozen out. There have been issues with contracts and payment he says, and agrees many employees are feeling varying degrees of fear and pressure.
«Timon tries threatening employees that there are no other jobs if we quit, because we don’t speak Norwegian,» he said.
Despite this, «Arnold» is actively looking for other jobs.
«Things have gotten very bad at this point. For the last month the ventilation in the kitchen has been broken,» he said. «It’s filled with smoke, some places you almost cannot see anything. Several people have gotten ill.»
The Nighthawk Diner answers
Manager Timon Page and part-owner Jan Vardøen responded to the accusations.
Page manages both restaurant locations, and says he does not agree with the claims. He also said The Nighthawk Diner is devoted to complying with all employer requirements, including in the case of Lauren Guido.
«We are committed to having a fully-functioning work environment where employees can come to us with concerns,» he said.
«We have a Code of Conduct, which all employees receive when they are hired, which indicates what they are entitled to. Relevant laws are also available in the health and safety folder,» he added.
Page said he was unaware of people not having received payment for sick leave or hours they had worked, but stated it is the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV) which pays sick leave after 16 days, not the employer.
«The Nighthawk Diner has given employees the work hours they are entitled to according to their contracts, with the opportunity for breaks according to the law and agreement between employer and employee,» he said.
He added that the establishment has done its best to give «adequate training» to employees, and that it is unfortunate if that was not good enough, but that he feels lucky to have employees who do such a good job.
Page said the management does their best to give employees the shifts they want.
«We have over 80 employees, so it’s hard to meet everyone’s needs. We try to make sure everyone receives the number of shifts they are entitled to, and which are in line with the law. Wages are also paid out in accordance with relevant rules.»
Regarding the dress code, and female employees feeling uncomfortable, Page said all workers are free to choose if they want to wear pants or a dress.
«Our employees should not experience any inappropriate behavior from guests or other employees here.»
Timon Page, administrative director of The Nighthawk Diner
Free Norwegian classes
Page said he was unaware of any allegations about employee turnover, contract issues, freezing out, or a culture of fear.
«Employees are offered free Norwegian classes if they want. Those courses are offered to all of them before the class starts, and we will make the same opportunity available when the next course starts.»
He did not know anything about employees doing work which was not supposed to be part of the job, but says if so it’s very unfortunate.
«When it comes to work [in the kitchen], there have been times when technicians have repaired kitchen appliances while we were open, but almost all large repairs have been done when we were closed. In a few limited cases it has been difficult to get a hold of technicians outside work hours,» he said.
Page admits there have been ventilation problems, but adds the problem has been fixed since mid-February, and that he has apologized to the affected employees.
«The Nighthawk Diner wants to be clear that we are strive to uphold all regulations, and to have a good working environment. It’s sad to hear that some employees say they have not had that with us, but we definitely believe we have a very good and inclusive work environment,» Page concluded.
«Should have a good experience»
Part-owner Jan Vardøen says he is not involved in the day-to-day running of the business, and therefore does not know about the situation in detail.
«Based on the information I have, I don’t think the accusations in the article hold water. We take all complaints very seriously, and investigate carefully. We are required to do so. Based on my experience, I question the journalistic work done in conjunction with this article. Generally, I would like to make it clear that we are very devoted to creating a good work environment, and this is the first time in 20 years we have received the kind of feedback in this article. Everyone who works with us should have a good experience; that’s the most important thing.»