When Amber Diaz got hired at the Uptown Bonchon, her manager was upfront with how things were going to go. She and her co-workers were told that 50 percent of their tips would be withheld during a probation period of sorts. When they proved themselves, they’d have an opportunity to earn more.
“We just kind of agreed to it,” she says. As far as she knew, this was totally above-board. Besides, she had previous experience as a server. She didn’t think it would take long to start collecting more.
Weeks passed with no luck.
“It became clear that [management] wasn’t actually evaluating what we were doing,” she says. That’s when workers started poking around and realizing that this kind of thing is actually textbook wage theft. Management isn’t supposed to mess with your tips—not even to pay other staff.
Diaz says they tried to tell their bosses what they were doing was illegal—even gave them articles describing crackdowns on this exact behavior. But nothing changed—not until one of the workers leaked what was happening on Facebook last December, to the outrage of the public.
Management immediately changed its tune and addressed the gaffe publicly, posting a long, apologetic missive on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
“We realize the incredible mistake we made in withholding hard earned tips from our servers in our first few months of business,” it read. “As a new establishment we are still learning the ropes, and are ashamed of our lack of knowledge when it comes to the legality of this matter.”
That doesn’t jibe with the accounts of Diaz and other workers, but at the very least, management offered them their tips back—except for a percentage culled for credit cart transactions. However, they also severely cut their workers’ hours. Diaz says she went from working 40 hours a week to something like 12.
Server Mya Bradford started getting scheduled only once or twice a week. Her ongoing apartment search was no longer within her means, and she and her young son ended up homeless. Diaz was living with family at the time and relatively safe, but she knows workers who suddenly couldn’t pay rent anymore.
That’s when they teamed up with the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Minnesota, a nonprofit advocating for better job conditions. In May, the workers marched to Lake Street to demand their remaining backpay and protest the slashing of their hours. They also filed a complaint with the city’s Labor Standards Enforcement Division.
By the end of the summer, Bonchon settled. Diaz wasn’t sure what she was expecting, but she was still surprised to see some $2,000 in wages and damages sent her way in a series of checks. Bradford got a similar amount. Center organizer Eli Edleson-Stein estimates the total payout to be “tens of thousands.”
“That was a lot of money I never would have gotten back if I never fought for it,” Diaz says.
Bonchon attorney R. Henry Pfutzenreuter sent a statement maintaining this was a misunderstanding of city ordinances, not wage theft.
"The city has officially closed its investigation. My client’s employees are receiving everything that they are entitled to under the law," he said.
There are a few lessons to take away from this struggle. One is that Bonchon is not exceptional—nor are the 15 Eat Street businesses that got slammed with overtime and minimum wage violations this fall. The center maintains this sort of thing is a systemic issue, especially in service jobs.
“I think the biggest thing is knowing how easy it is to get screwed in this industry and not know,” Diaz says.
But the other is that change is possible.
“All of us coming together was really powerful,” Bradford says. She works in a department store now, and touches base with her new co-workers to make sure everyone is getting a fair share. She sometimes thinks about the other issues she might be able to change with enough people on her side—like skyrocketing rent or insurance rates.
You never know, she says, until you try.