At about 10 p.m. on March 19, the night before payday, Gigi’s Cafe cook Evan Remmel and his colleagues received an email from restaurant owner Kim Bartmann informing them they would not be receiving their paychecks.
The note came just days after restaurants were ordered to close dine-in service statewide, and Remmel and workers at Bartmann’s several Southwest Minneapolis establishments were counting on their earnings from the March 9 through March 15 pay period as their last definitive source of income heading into a period of great fragility and uncertainty.
“Not getting those hours terrified me,” Remmel said.
It wasn’t until early May that Remmel and his Bartmann Group colleagues received their missing paychecks, he said, and some workers in the group say they are still missing wages or gratuities. Bartmann workers like Remmel are organizing while their restaurants are closed and demanding both damages for the hardship caused by the missed payments and improved labor conditions and benefits when they can come back. “What we are focusing on is ensuring that we have a voice in what it looks like to return to work,” said Naomi Hornstein, who works at Pat’s Tap.
Bartmann has built up a large restaurant business in Minneapolis, mainly concen- trated in Southwest, including Barbette and connected bar Trapeze in East Isles, Book Club in Armatage, Bread & Pickle at the Lake Harriet Pavilion, Gigi’s Cafe in South Uptown and Pat’s Tap in Lyndale. She also is the proprietor of Red Stag Supper Club in Northeast and Tiny Diner in South Minneapolis.
Bartmann has not responded to messages seeking comment on this story. Employees said she has not responded to their demands directly. She told the Star Tribune she couldn’t respond to worker’s demands because they hadn’t been brought to her directly.
Workers, organizing under the name One House United, detailed those demands in a letter to Bartmann. The employees want all earned wages, tips accrued, paid-time-off and sick and safe time benefits paid out immediately; a month’s worth of severance pay for any employees who leave the company; and a new structure to the workplace for employees who do return, including power in decision making and profit sharing. Workers are also entitled to damages under Minnesota law, the group says, citing a statute that imposes a penalty equal to average daily earnings for up to 15 days if an employer does not properly pay employees within 24 hours of receiving a served notice of unpaid wages.
“We’re giving Kim the opportunity to make right by that and give us a more empowering workplace,” Hornstein said.
Remmel and Hornstein joined several colleagues and members of advocacy group
Restaurant Opportunities Center for Minnesota (ROC) in a socially distanced protest outside of Barbette in Uptown, where Bartmann keeps her offices, on May 20 to directly deliver their demands. Donning masks and holding signs with slogans like “Local Organic Wage Theft,” the workers spread out to tell their stories over a megaphone as passing cars gave periodic honks of support. The group posted their letter of demands on the Barbette doors with a ROC petition that garnered more than 3,000 signatures demanding the company pay its employees.
Other issues had persisted at Bartmann restaurants before the crisis, workers said, including management vacancies causing others to have to complete extra tasks. Some employees, including Remmel, said they had not received proper overtime payments that had been earned by working more\ than 40 hours a week at multiple Bartmann Group establishments. Remmel got his start working at Bread & Pickle about six years ago and would occasionally cover shifts there last summer, in addition to work at Gigi’s Cafe, but hadn’t received required overtime payments because the restaurants operate under separate LLCs, a common form of wage theft the state and city are trying to eliminate. Bartmann acknowledged owing some overtime pay to the Star Tribune.
Bartmann group workers say they hope others in the industry will also try to make their voices heard.
On March 25, Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office sent a letter to Bartmann requesting copies of financial records related to withheld wages and gratuities.
“Minnesota workers and small-business owners are both having a tough time affording their lives right now, especially in the hospitality industry that is such an important part of Minnesota’s economy and culture. But even in this tough time, it’s still not legal to withhold wages that employees have earned,” Ellison said in a statement.
The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment further on the matter, citing an ongoing investigation.
Expanded unemployment benefits through the CARES Act have helped workers like Hornstein and Remmel stay stable during the crisis, but they know that some colleagues and others in the industry may not be eligible for those benefits due to immigration status or that payments may not be sufficient to cover expenses for those providing for larger families.
Of Bartmann’s restaurants, only Barbette has been open for takeout during the pandemic shutdown, and Bread & Pickle just opened for the season, so most of her employees have not been working during the closures. Whether her workers want to return is another matter.
“It will really depend on how management responds to our demands,” Remmel said.
Correction: A photo caption in this story misidentified the person who posted demand letter on the door of Barbette.