The Wages of Rock

CALL IT A symptom of the "cool job syndrome": For eight months, between September of 1997 and late April of this year, First Avenue's night staff were paid 5 cents an hour below the minimum wage, $5.15, and for many years, no one working more than 40 hours a week has received overtime pay. Still, the grumbling among First Ave.'s 120-strong employees was subdued until one worker, Kate Milenski, filed a complaint with the federal and Minnesota Labor departments in May, and posted a flyer around the club on June 12 that listed these and other longtime grievances.

Now the atmosphere at the great black bus station is tense, as the employees await possible state and federal investigations. (The Minnesota Department of Labor confirms that it has opened a file on the case, but did not reveal the contents.) This dispute has also raised labor/management issues that have often been left untouched, at times out of deference to a perception of the club's fiscal vulnerability in a newly competitive concert market.

"First Avenue's not as rich as it used to be," says a black-clad female bartender, who like many at the Ave. prefers not to be named. "So I just sat this out on the sidelines."

For her part, Milenski feels the management has taken advantage of employee loyalty. "I can't speculate on whether or not these mistakes were honest errors," she says. "But I think the bigger issue is that when pay rates were corrected in late April, no effort was made to inform anybody about it. The management isn't bending over backwards to apologize or make arrangements to pay anybody the money they're owed. That's what made me feel like we were being ripped off."

General manager Steve McClellan saw the flyer the Friday night it was distributed. After searching the Web on labor law, McClellan held meetings after closing time that night and on the following two nights to discuss the flyer, which he copied and distributed to employees. McClellan also attached his own strikingly personal response with that Monday's paychecks discussing his own travails at the club, along with some Web-posted information on labor laws. The memo, which McClellan showed City Pages, owned up to the payroll and overtime mistakes, but claimed that management had already begun sorting matters out, and expressed anger that the flyer inferred the mistakes were intentional.

"I was under two big false assumptions," McClellan explains over the phone. "First, that ADP [Automatic Data Processing], the big billion-dollar national corporation that does our payroll, was obligated not to issue paychecks unless they were legal. I was wrong. I was also under the assumption that tipped employees weren't covered by the minimum-wage raise. On the overtime thing, I assumed we counted as seasonal--my stage crew doesn't work much in January but works a lot in March and April--and that we were under the same kind of regulations as Valley Fair. I was wrong on that too.

"People keep telling me," he continues, "'Steve, people were talking about this three months ago.' Now I don't want to make this personal with Kate: I fucked up; we're straightening it out. But I'm kind of puzzled that no one walked into my office and approached me about it."

So why didn't Milenski, a four-year employee, speak to management before phoning the Labor Department? "I just didn't feel that it would be well-received." And judging from several interviews, the atmosphere for communication at the Ave. hasn't exactly been ideal in the past months. Milenski reports, for example, that bartenders sometimes must wait at the club, unpaid, until management decides that the audience is large enough to require an extra worker. "There's this sort of unwritten rule that you have to keep your mouth shut about waiting for a shift, or you won't get bar shifts," she says. (McClellan counters that employees are currently able to leave if they're not needed, and remain at their discretion.)

Milenski's flyer does, however, seem to have loosened (pierced) tongues and opened (plugged) ears. Two bartenders working at Africa Fete on Thursday, June 25, debate the topic in a dialogue that echoes those now being struck up among all the employees. "My sympathy's with the management," says one. "How could anyone anticipate how they'd react? I think going to them was the vital middle step that wasn't taken."

"If it had been me, I wouldn't have gone to management first," the other says. "I think they got away with it as long as they could, and I don't trust them. I don't want the place to close, I just think the truth's the truth."

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