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State intervenes with cafe owner over unpaid wages.

Byline: Retail Notebook by The Register-Guard

KEEP THE CHANGE: Coffee-sipping old-timers and thick cigarette smoke are abundant at the Summers Cafe in downtown Springfield. But wages for the eatery's handful of workers are, alas, sometimes in short supply.

Citing the cafe's pattern of stiffing employees, the state Bureau of Labor and Industries has told cafe owner Helen Summers that if she doesn't promptly pay what's owed, they may force her to stop hiring people.

The agency earlier this month sued Summers in Lane County Circuit Court, asking a judge to order Summers to stop "directly or indirectly employing" anyone because she had failed to pay workers and had also failed to post a $54,833 bond to ensure workers are paid.

It's rare for the bureau to file such a lawsuit, officials said. Typically, the agency seeks such a court order once a financially troubled venture has failed, to prevent it from rehiring, said Harold Rogers, a compliance specialist working on the Summers case.

Helen Summers said she'd rather not talk about the situation, other than to say she's working with the state.

Rogers said Summers has paid off part of what she owes and she's agreed to pay the rest over the next few weeks. If she does, the bureau will drop the suit and the bond demand, he said.

Summers Cafe, at 533 Main St., is a classic greasy spoon. The property, which Summers leases, has about 60 seats and is decorated with beveled and polished metal paneling. Amid a pall of eye-stinging smoke, a waitress who calls people "dear" and "honey" fills the coffee cups of a counterful of regulars. Summers, 78, oversees the till.

The place has perhaps a half-dozen employees.

Until last week, three former employees had outstanding wage claims totalling $816.50, Rogers said. One dated to 2000 and two were from this year, he said. Because Summers was so delinquent on these wages, the labor bureau had levied a penalty of $3,465 against her, to be divided among the former employees, Rogers said.

When Summers failed to pay the wages and the penalty, the bureau sued. At that point, Summers quickly paid all back wages, and agreed to pay half the penalty in increments if the state waived the other half, Rogers said.

The core problem, Rogers said, is that the cafe "is not a thriving business."

"It's a hand-to-mouth operation, where wages are actually coming out of the till," he said. Employees have told the bureau that Summers has at times issued them paychecks but told them not to cash them because she doesn't have enough in the bank to cover them, Rogers said. Then, she has doled out cash through the week as it has come in from customers, he said. "That's tended to keep most people happy most of the time," he said.

For unpaid workers, the sums are "relatively insubstantial," Rogers said. "But it's an ongoing nuisance for the community and for the agency that enforces these standards."

Summers has run her cafe at various Lane County spots over a number of years.

Employees have said Summers, a widow, just wants to keep busy, Rogers added.

"I do think part of it is just providing her with an activity," he said.

By business editor Christian Wihtol.
COPYRIGHT 2001 The Register Guard
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 6, 2001
Words:548
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