Picketers outside the Wild Goose Oct. 7

Workers alleging wage theft and retaliatory firings while they were employees at Wild Goose and Good Neighbors Meeting House, a pair of café-style eateries — both under the same ownership — organized a picket line Wednesday, Oct. 7, in front of the Wild Goose at the corner of North Tejon and East Boulder streets. The businesses have served as community hubs and meeting spaces downtown and in the Patty Jewett neighborhood. 

Approximately 50 picketers representing a variety of labor organizations, including the newly formed Wild Neighbors Workers Association, the Colorado Springs Area Labor Council, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Industrial Workers of the World, provided information to passersby while the Wild Goose served a steady lunchtime crowd. “We gave our list of grievances to the owners on Monday morning,” explained Charlie Claus, the former front-of-house manager at Good Neighbors Meeting House, during an interview Oct. 6. “Last night [Oct. 5] myself and two other people were asked to not come in today, that our shifts were covered.” They were fired the afternoon of Oct. 6.

The list of grievances, signed by 17 employees and the two who were fired, was provided to owners Russ Ware and Yemi Mobolade, who is also the small business development administrator for the city of Colorado Springs. Allegations include wage and tip theft, and lack of a concrete and enforceable sexual harassment policy. According to a copy of the document provided to the Indy by Michael Smith, a bartender at the Wild Goose, “Under Colorado labor law, server wage employees must not share tips with food preparers or management. Ownership illegally splits tips between all three of these positions to avoid paying minimum wage. Because of this, employees receive less than minimum wage before tips.”

Smith explains, “If you take a tip credit towards minimum wage, where you pay less than minimum wage because you’re supplementing it with tips, you can only do that if you’re not sharing tips with food preparers and management. That’s the policy at the Wild Goose as well as Good Neighbors. There’s not a single employee, other than the general manager and the owners, that makes $12 an hour, so we’re all in violation of labor laws.”

Ware disagrees, and says he has used the tip-sharing model since he opened the Wild Goose in 2013. Ware claims the Wild Goose’s café-style service model differentiates them from traditional restaurants. “The labor laws around tip-sharing are a little nuanced,” he says. “For us, the tip-share is easy. It’s really the only option we have because it’s counter service. There’s no particular server identified with a person.

Basically every person back here has something to do with serving a customer, whether you’re making a latte or making a sandwich. The guys up front are going to be doing the cashier function, but the guys in the back are going to be bringing the food out to the tables. We call it a ‘shared hospitality’ model. In a traditional restaurant, food-preparers, if that’s their only job, are not supposed to be in the tip pool. The people here who prepare our food are also part of our service mechanism, so they’re not just food preparers.”

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s “Code of Colorado Regulations” states, “Employer-required sharing of tips with employees who do not customarily and regularly receive tips, such as management or food preparers, or deduction of credit card processing fees from tipped employees, shall nullify allowable tip credits towards the minimum wage.”

Smith says Ware’s characterization is inaccurate. “They’re distinct parts of the business,” claims Smith. “There’s not many employees that go back and forth, and it’s usually the managers. I’m not allowed to pick up kitchen shifts and they’re not allowed to pick up bar shifts.

They’re trying to say we’re all classified as service of some sort, and that’s just kind of him using his own semantics to justify that he’s paying us 2 cents above what’s the bare legal minimum for servers. He’s choosing to pay as little as possible, and the only reason he’s gotten away with it for so long is there hasn’t been an opportunity for workers to actually help each other and support each other.”

This dispute over wages comes as the state’s restaurant industry is reeling from the impact of COVID-19 restrictions, combined with rising food costs and a legally mandated minimum wage increase, which Ware claims disrupted their model for scheduled wage increases. “The last couple of years, even before COVID, [regular raises] kind of got disrupted by that four-year stretch of minimum wage hikes,” he admits.

Additionally, Ware suffered losses from mandated closures. “We were shut down here for a month,” he says, but the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and emergency grant funding have helped his businesses stay open, despite losses. “We don’t know where it’s going to end up, exactly, but we’re going to be off by $100,000. We would be out of business except for relief funds and things like that. If it weren’t for the PPP money we would not be able to reopen here. How do you lose $100,000 and still be in business? Because of PPP money and a few smaller grants, and we spent every dime of it. Most of it was payroll.”

In addition to PPP funding, the Wild Goose received a $10,000 grant from the Colorado Springs Downtown Development Authority, and a $20,000 grant from the El Paso County Regional Business Relief Fund.

As a business owner, Ware has to juggle payroll and the cost of food, which has increased since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. “Our cost of goods, as a counter-service and not like a full-blown kitchen, are usually higher for a place like ours,” explains Ware. “We’re not making a lot of stuff from scratch. We’re not cooking meat, and deli meat and stuff like that is a lot more expensive. In the restaurant industry the sweet spot for cost of goods is around 25 percent. Anything under 30 percent is good. We’re happy if we’re at anywhere under 35 percent, and I can tell you right now we’re struggling to stay below 40 percent. That and personnel are the highest things. If those two things are off you’re going in the hole.”

However, workers also are struggling as legislative discussions over COVID-19 relief measures have stalled, leading groups like Restaurant Workers United to stage a series of “Save Our $600” protests at the offices of Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Doug Lamborn. In January the average rent in Colorado Springs was $1,347, according to a local rent report from Rentcafe. Most restaurant employees don’t work full-time schedules. 

“We usually cap out at 34 to 36 hours a week for full-time people,” explained Claus. “I have four people full-time, front-of-house, at Good Neighbors; back of house, there’s another four people.”

On Oct. 6, Ware fired Claus and Wild Goose front of house manager Ian Williams. Smith claims the firing was retaliation for organizing efforts. “Reinstate Charlie and Ian!” was one of the chants heard during the Oct. 7 picketing.

Ware claims the personnel decision was planned and that the timing, coming after the presentation of grievances, was coincidental. “There have been some pretty major issues,” he admits. “One of the characteristics of our leadership here is that we walk with people for a very long time. Probably longer than we should in some cases.

Some of the recent issues with the sexual harassment thing involved decisions and actions by some people on our staff that were very problematic, so we had set meetings one-on-one that were very sensitive discussions of personnel manners. Yemi and I reached out to Charlie and Ian on [Sept. 29], before any of this started, to talk about some of the difficulties of the last couple of weeks. That meeting was set before all of this happened.”

However, during the Oct. 6 meeting, which Claus recorded, Ware told them, “Obviously the nature of these meetings has changed, and what it has changed for, for us, really taking now into account all the things we wanted to talk about, but the actions of the last 48 hours in particular. It’s not OK, so we have got to make the move to remove you from our staff today.”

While Colorado follows the “employment-at-will” legal doctrine, it is illegal for an employer to fire someone for union-related activities.

“We’re not actually asking for anything that’s that unreasonable,” says Smith, “we’re just asking him to comply with the law.”