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

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Photo: Stephanie Land

After the Department of Labor netted 25 Park Slope restaurants for underpaying workers, we notice that one of them, Aunt Suzie’s owner Irene Lo Re, had also spoken against a proposed bill that would require restaurants to offer their employees paid sick leave. We’ve now had a chance to talk to Lo Re, and though she says she’s “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 what’s your current policy about sick leave?
Most of my employees, if they’re 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 don’t 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 don’t want to be there — they want to act on Broadway, write the great American novel, or paint for the Louvre. While they’re getting to these places, they’re 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 what’s wrong with the new one that’s 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, they’ll be considered a right, and people will just take them. If you have just fourteen people taking nine days, that’s 126 in a year. In the restaurant business, if people aren’t coming in, I have to pay somebody to replace them, so that’s not 126 days, it’s really 252. That’s a full-time job. All you need is fourteen people taking nine sick days, and you’ve lost a full-time job to the economy. This will put off the recovery from this recession for years. You’re going to hurt the employees you’re 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. They’re asking us to give benefits at a time when customer counts are down, expenses are up, and sales for each person are down. We’re 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 they’re 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. It’s a record-keeping problem. They’re saying we’re not paying our workers properly, which may not necessarily be true — what we don’t have is the proper paperwork to say we’re 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 didn’t 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 — that’s what infuriated me.

Did you make a settlement?
I didn’t make a settlement, I was so enraged at the fact that they just simply said that we didn’t pay our employees properly, and of course I couldn’t 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 doesn’t matter.” I requested a hearing and haven’t heard anything.

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