Raided Aunt Suzie’s Owner: ‘I Felt Like I Was Living in Some Kind of Banana Republic’

Photo: Stephanie Land

After the Department of Labor netted 25 Park Slope restaurants for underpaying workers, we notice that one of them, Aunt Suzies owner Irene Lo Re, had also spoken against a proposed bill that would require restaurants to offer their employees paid sick leave. Weve now had a chance to talk to Lo Re, and though she says shes scared as hell about the charges being leveled against her, she insists that her employees will be the ultimate victims of increased labor regulations over restaurants.

So whats your current policy about sick leave?
Most of my employees, if theyre sick, we try to take care of them not really the front of the house, but cooks and people like that, because the front of the house tends to be a different, less serious employee, and they cover for each other. The rule is if you dont come in for whatever reason, you have to get someone to cover. Most waiters are of a certain age group, and a lot of them dont want to be there they want to act on Broadway, write the great American novel, or paint for the Louvre. While theyre getting to these places, theyre not all that dedicated. A sick day to a lot of people in that age group is a hangover.

Obviously, you have your own system, but whats wrong with the new one thats being proposed?
For small businesses, this would be such a tremendous burden nine days is off-the-hook in terms of the amount of days. Once those days are in play, theyll be considered a right, and people will just take them. If you have just fourteen people taking nine days, thats 126 in a year. In the restaurant business, if people arent coming in, I have to pay somebody to replace them, so thats not 126 days, its really 252. Thats a full-time job. All you need is fourteen people taking nine sick days, and youve lost a full-time job to the economy. This will put off the recovery from this recession for years. Youre going to hurt the employees youre going to try to win this benefit for the first thing an employer is going to say is I have to reduce your hours, or there goes your vacation days. I have to get those nine days from somewhere. Theyre asking us to give benefits at a time when customer counts are down, expenses are up, and sales for each person are down. Were in a vice.

Were you surprised when you were raided by the labor department?
I was shocked I felt like I was living in some kind of banana republic. They came into my business at 7 p.m., and went into the kitchen while guys where trying to put out dinner, and theyre trying to interview them. They followed employees into the dining room as they tried to provide service.

Are the charges against you valid?
They are blaming employers for a system that is totally broken. Its a record-keeping problem. Theyre saying were not paying our workers properly, which may not necessarily be true what we dont have is the proper paperwork to say were paying our workers properly.

So what are you actually paying them?
It depends on the job the main guy [in the kitchen] makes $13 and change an hour, and overtime brings it over $20. The fellow in question [who was singled out by investigators] makes $10, and overtime is $15.

How much does the labor department want you to pay?
$10,000 that was divided over several employees over several years. They named two employees, one who was an employee and some guy who had worked a week or so covering somebody. Then they didnt even name the other employees, they just put XXX [instead of a name]. They said I owed $5,000 to someone they identified as XXX thats what infuriated me.

Did you make a settlement?
I didnt make a settlement, I was so enraged at the fact that they just simply said that we didnt pay our employees properly, and of course I couldnt back it up, and when they interviewed the employee, he said they were paid properly. I spoke to my employee, and he said he would sign an affidavit, and the inspector said, Oh, that doesnt matter. I requested a hearing and havent heard anything.

Earlier: Aunt Suzie's Owner Spoke Against Sick Leave Before Being Busted for Wage-Dodging