Tandem Wine and Cheese Bar was promoted as a chic, relaxed, farm-to-table restaurant, with an eclectic decor and an outdoor patio in the heart of Woodinville’s wineries. It opened in Woodinville in 2010 and operated for a decade until closing abruptly in June 2019. Tandem had its devoted regulars: “It was almost like Cheers with some customers,” says one former employee. But for staff, working there was another story.
In a complaint filed in King County Superior Court, five former Tandem workers describe a widespread and long standing pattern of wage theft at the restaurant. They allege that they are still waiting to receive thousands of dollars in unpaid wages more than a year after Tandem closed. Now, represented by Fair Work Center, these workers have come together to recover their unpaid wages and raise awareness about wage theft in the restaurant industry.
Paychecks came at unpredictable intervals, were frequently short hundreds of dollars, and often bounced when employees attempted to cash them. When plaintiffs confronted Tandem about money missing from their checks, they were met with excuses and delays.
“Rampant wage theft in the restaurant industry is a well-known problem. Stories like our clients’ are all too common, and the pressure to stay employed often forces many workers to put up with violations of their rights,” said Danielle Alvarado, Legal Director at Fair Work Center. “This case will make sure these workers are paid, and it will send a message to employers across Washington: you will be held accountable if you’re choosing not to comply with our state’s wage theft laws.”
Missing tips and bounced paychecks
“It was exhausting to chase down paychecks because I was in school 7 days a week at the time — and then committing my time at Tandem on top of that to pay bills and help pay for school. It was money that I was really relying on. I was exhausted because I had to put in all this extra time and effort just to get paid.” —Savannah, plaintiff
The plaintiffs in this case knew they were not getting all their tips. Often, tips were totally missing from their paychecks. And even when tips were supposedly included, Tandem didn’t issue pay stubs. Without pay stubs, earnings and tips can be easily obscured, which is why Washington State requires employers to provide them to workers.
Employees were forced to do their best to keep their own records to ensure they got paid all their wages. On top of that, employees were never sure when they could expect their next paycheck. State law requires employers to pay their employees at regular, predictable intervals, but that almost never happened at Tandem.
Savannah started working at Tandem as a server in 2018. Weeks went by, but she was never paid for her work. She asked for her paycheck and explained that without pay, she was struggling to pay her mounting bills. Instead of an explanation or a check, management stalled, offering only excuses. Left with little choice, Savannah was forced to take out a loan to pay her rent and college tuition bill.
“It was so stressful when Tandem didn’t pay me. I had to take out this last-minute student loan, and it was a private loan with higher interest rates. I was desperate at the time — I hadn’t planned for that at all.” —Savannah, plaintiff
When Tandem did distribute paychecks, workers report that checks often bounced at the bank. The checks were already weeks late, and the amounts were short hundreds of dollars. And now, when employees went to the bank to actually get their long-awaited money? The bank would tell them the check didn’t clear. They still weren’t getting paid.
Tackling wage theft
Wage theft is all too common, especially in the restaurant industry, and studies show that it’s likely on the rise during this pandemic. It’s more urgent now than ever that workers have access to effective tools to get promptly back the money they’re owed.
Workers need more tools to hold their employers accountable when they’re not getting paid what they’re owed. That’s why Fair Work Center & Working Washington are working to pass the Washington Wage Recovery Act.
The bill allows workers to put a temporary hold on known employer assets as soon as wage theft happens — the best possible time to secure those assets. Because rent, food, and car payments don’t take a holiday, workers can’t afford to wait years to recover their wages. The temporary hold on assets — also called a “lien” — has been used very effectively by unpaid or underpaid farmworkers and construction workers in Washington for years. It’s time that other workers be included in this effective solution to get paid.
The Washington Wage Recovery Act would help workers experiencing wage theft get paid before their bills come due, so that they’re not forced to take their employer to court more than a year after their wages were stolen.