by William Pilgrim
David Sokolowski was excited by the promise of starting a full time waiting position at the recently opened Vietnamese/American restaurant Toast & Pho. Toast & Pho, located at 103 NW 21st Ave., opened Sunday, November 1. By Monday Sokolowski was fired, and left unpaid for nearly two weeks of work. On Sunday, November 8, Sokolowski confronted his former employer, and with help from workers involved with the Portland Restaurant Workers Association (PRWA), Sokolowski received his due.
November 18, 2009
Sokolowski –a six year industry veteran with both quick serve and fine dining experience– left a full-time supervisory position at Pita Pit to help prepare Toast & Pho for its opening. From the beginning, it was, “pure chaos.” Sokolowski said, “there were a couple times, before the restaurant opened, that I was notified of a training [by suppliers, not restaurant management], meeting or cleaning after the shift had already begun.”
Though the wait staff participated in meetings before the restaurant opened, there was no training provided or expectations established regarding wait staff responsibilities. Sokolowski says that, “none of the management team had any previous restaurant experience but believed their authority should not be questioned.” Management removed three of the original five wait staff from the schedule after the first day, without telling the workers they were fired.
A manager told the two remaining members, including Sokolowski, that teams of new trainees would be brought in to compete with them, and if they weren’t the fastest they too would be fired. After working the breakfast shift on November 2, Toast & Pho terminated Sokolowski’s employment but failed to pay his final wages and tips totaling $306.40.
Sokolowski, “felt betrayed. They were taking advantage of all wait staff workers, and treating them very badly.” The inexperienced managers were demanding and unreasonable, expecting wait staff to take on responsibilities they had never been explained or communicated. When employees did not meet these expectations, management was abusive, berating employees and threatening their jobs. Sokolowski recalls that during a busy period, “the owner proceeded to yell at me across the dining area from the kitchen,” for not picking up and delivering food quickly enough.
While at Toast & Pho, Sokolowski witnessed other abuses and violations. Management did not record hours worked before or after the restaurant was opened, employees did not fill out W-4’s to report their wages. Wait staff was not given or offered the required 10 and 30 minute breaks during the two days Sokolowski worked. And because only management had access to the computers or money, the wait staff had no way of tracking their tips, or knowing what they’d earned.
Unemployed and uncertain if he would ever be paid, Sokolowski turned to the Portland Restaurant Workers Association (PRWA) for support. The PRWA’s Workers Support Committee met with Sokolowski on Friday, November 6 to coordinate a plan of action to secure a timely payment of his wages. With their advice, Sokolowski contacted Toast & Pho by phone and email on Saturday to notify management he would be coming in the next day to pick up his wages. In his phone exchange, his former manager assured Sokolowski his check was waiting for him.
But, because Toast & Pho had proven itself less than genuine already, Sokolowski and the PRWA prepared for collective and legal action. The PRWA alerted its Solidarity Action Network, designed to provide direct and visible support to workers confronting their employers, that Sokolowski would need their support in case he did not receive his wages on Sunday. By failing to pay Sokolowski his final wages and tips by the end of the first business day after his discharge, Toast & Pho was in violation of Oregon state law ORS 652.140 and subject to Bureau of Labor & Industry (BOLI) wage claim investigation or civil lawsuit.
When Sokolowski and three PRWA Solidarity Action Network members arrived at Toast & Pho on Sunday, November 8 they were told by his former manager that no paychecks were available and offered Sokolowski a beverage for the “inconvenience.” Sokolowski was forced to produce a completed W-4 and a BOLI wage claim form before the owner was willing to compensate him. The owner immediately said, “write him a check for whatever he wants.”
“They had no idea how much anyone had earned in tips, so they accepted my requested amount without hesitation. They did not account for any of my training, cleaning or waiting hours, so they accepted my requested amount. They attempted to take 30 minutes off of each shift even though no wait staff employee was allowed any 10 or 30 minute breaks for any of shifts, so they retracted that under my demand.”
Toast & Pho were only willing to pay when threatened with legal action, and originally stated that “miscommunication” led Sokolowski to believe that his paycheck would be ready Sunday. While this was clearly victory for Sokolowski, he still fears that the other three employees, who were fired without notice, have not yet received their pay. Without access to their contact information, or even the last names of his former coworkers, he has been unable pursue that matter further.
In interviews, Sokolowski was grateful for the prompt support and collective action. Inexperience cannot be an excuse for this kind of behavior in an employer. With these kinds of systemic abuses built into the management of Toast & Pho, it’s likely that they will continue. But direct action, with support from other workers, may help, and the PRWA is proud to have assisted.