After six months as a server and bartender at Tiny Diner in Minneapolis, Madyson Lee learned last week that the restaurant was closing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like thousands of restaurant workers across Minnesota whose workplaces shut down because of the virus, Lee filed for unemployment and waited for her last check to arrive in the mail. On Friday, she woke up to an e-mail saying it wasn’t coming.
Kim Bartmann, the Minneapolis restaurateur whose holdings include Tiny Diner, Barbette, Red Stag Supperclub, Pat’s Tap, Book Club and Gigi’s Café, told employees in an e-mail late Thursday that their paychecks for the March 9-15 period would not be available.
Bartmann said Tuesday evening she is doing everything she can to secure funding to pay her employees what they’re due.
“I’ve got a proven track record of valuing community, living wages and local economy over profit and the present moment is no exception,” she said in an e-mail.
For Lee, the lost income is a huge blow, and includes about $600 in tips.
“I had regulars who were coming in and tipping me 50% on a check, 70% on a check, because they know that I’m going to be out of a job, and I’m not seeing that money still,” Lee said. “At this point, I don’t know how I’m going to pay my rent.”
Bartmann told City Pages on Monday that her businesses had been struggling and that she applied for a disaster loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration that could help meet payroll costs.
Bartmann told City Pages that about 190 people received her e-mail Thursday. In it, she outlined setbacks in her own career as a restaurant employee and said none of those experiences “can compare to the way I feel today, not being able to ‘make’ payroll.”
“I shouldn’t have let any of us down, and I shouldn’t have been running things so close to the edge,” she wrote. “The average small business has about 16 days of liquidity; this time of year, I have about 5. Those days got eaten up by the coronavirus and a sudden, steep drop in sales over the weekend, which usually pays our payroll.”
Tiny Diner employees said the idea that sales were down because of the virus doesn’t ring true. Clara Schultz, a server, said her last shift was busy as usual. Minnie Lopez, a host, said there was a waitlist for Sunday brunch tables before the restaurant closed.
“We were all working really hard and just putting our health on the line because we all knew about the virus, and we all knew the risks,” Lopez said. “It just was really unfortunate that we couldn’t get paid after those specific shifts.”
The Minnesota Wage Theft Prevention Act, which went into effect Aug. 1, requires employers to pay all wages, including gratuities, at least once every 31 days. Failing to do so can result in fines and prison time.
Schultz said she and her co-workers have discussed a potential wage-theft complaint with the state but have yet to move forward. For now, they’re drafting letters to Bartmann and circulating a petition demanding their wages.
“At the very least, she should have been able to pay us our tip money,” Schultz said.
The petition, created by the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Center of Minnesota, had more than 1,500 signatures Tuesday morning. It alleges that Bartmann’s restaurants “were under declining management and investment” before the coronavirus outbreak.
“Liquor licenses went unpaid, staff schedules were being cut without any communication and management positions were not being filled after turnover, leaving the management of individual restaurants to us, minimum wage workers,” the petition said.
Joe Hunt, a cook at Tiny Diner, said he wasn’t included in Bartmann’s e-mail and learned through a former employee that he wouldn’t be paid. This missed paycheck is his second, he said.
“The one week’s check, combined with the bounced check from last year, combined with the fact that there’s no work for the foreseeable future, means bills probably aren’t going to get paid,” Hunt said.
In her e-mail, Bartmann said she applied for unemployment and encouraged her employees to do the same. “I’m hoping that when we reopen, our sales will be strong and we can all get back to work,” she wrote.
Though serving and bartending at Tiny Diner was her only job, Lee said she has no plans to return. “I will not work for her again,” she said.