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Vinyl Taco owner says employees didn't raise safety concerns prior to walkout

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Mandie Koci, a bartender at Vinyl Taco, wears a face mask while preparing to open the restaurant Friday, May 15, in downtown Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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FARGO — One of the owners of a downtown Fargo restaurant that experienced a walkout by employees who cited virus prevention concerns says workers did not communicate those concerns to management prior to leaving their jobs.

"This wasn't about unsafe working conditions. Everybody had the opportunity to say something, but didn't," said Lance Thorson, an owner of Vinyl Taco, where a number of employees walked off the job the morning of Saturday, May 9. Additional employees did not report to work in following days.

In total, Thorson said it appears 13 employees took part in the walkout at Vinyl Taco, which before the walkout had a staff of about 35.

Thorson maintains employees involved in the walkout planned the event in secret to maximize the surprise and harm done to the business.

He also said an article The Forum published online shortly after the walkout began fell short of telling both sides of the story.

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Thorson said the initial walkout story contained remarks from a manager who was asked for comment essentially as the protest was taking place.

"Our general manager, Kevin Nelson, said: 'This is the first I've heard of it (the walkout). I can't provide a comment because I don't know what you're referring to,''' Thorson said, describing events that Saturday morning.

Since the walkout, Thorson said he has obtained screen images of online chats employees held as they planned the protest.

Without disclosing how he came to possess the chats, Thorson said they show that planners of the walkout wanted to maximize the surprise and harm done to the business by keeping their intentions secret.

He said the chats also show employees spoke to a Forum reporter prior to the walkout in order to help shape the story's narrative.

"We just felt it wasn't fair at all to Vinyl Taco, the way that it all went," Thorson said.

The co-owner described The Forum's initial story about the walkout as reckless, asserting it allowed a few employees to harm the reputation of a local business "in order to pump it (the protest) up as breaking news."

The initial Forum story on the walkout quoted a worker who said staff were promised safety measures that were not made available to workers.

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The employee, who identified himself for the story as Michael Strike, said staff who walked out demanded a number of things, including mandatory temperature checks for workers and a pay raise to $15 an hour for back-of-the house employees during the pandemic.

Thorson said if employees had worries about safety at the business, which reopened May 1 after weeks of being closed, those worries were not communicated to managers before the walkout.

He said a staff meeting was held April 30, prior to the business reopening, for the expressed purpose of discussing safety, but he said it was lightly attended.

"Five of our employees showed up and we went through all of the new procedures and the state guidelines that were set forth by the health department," Thorson said, adding that when it came to safety precautions, the business went above and beyond requirements set by officials.

"Nobody spoke up at that meeting about any concerns. Nobody spoke up through the entire first week we had reopened," Thorson said, adding he suspects that for some involved in the walkout the move had less to do with safety and more to do with securing unemployment compensation.

Michael Strike, whose real name is Michael Barrett, maintains that workers did voice concerns about returning to work amid the ongoing pandemic, including at the April 30 staff meeting and subsequent to it.

Barrett said he and others involved in the walkout would rather work than receive unemployment benefits, but he said they want to work safely.

He said keeping the walkout secret from upper management was part of the plan.

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"It had to be (secret) because we weren't being listened to while we were working and we are used to not being listened to," said Barrett, who said he gave the surname Strike to accompany his comments for the initial Forum story because it is a name he goes by and he plans to legally change it to Strike, in part because Lucky Strikes are his favorite brand of cigarette.

Workers who walked out say one issue raised during the April 30 meeting was the question of whether employees who didn't return to work because they had coronavirus concerns would be eligible for unemployment.

Unemployment insurance

When it comes to unemployment claims, Job Service North Dakota handles each situation on a case-by-case basis, according to Bryan Klipfel, executive director of the agency.

In general, Klipfel said, if an individual refuses to return to employment when called back after a layoff, whether due to the pandemic or not, the individual's claim for benefits would be stopped for further investigation.

He said information would be gathered from both the employer and the employee to determine eligibility for benefits and a Job Service adjudicator would look at things like the steps the employer is taking to maintain a safe work environment and why the individual felt unsafe, along with other factors.

A similar process would occur if someone leaves a job over COVID-19 concerns, according to Klipfel, who said if a business reopens and a worker does not feel safe working there, they could still receive unemployment benefits.

Barrett said he anticipates many of the protesters will be denied unemployment benefits.

"We all love to work and we'd go anywhere else. But, we are taking the steps to try and get help with the system that is available to us," Barrett said.

Thorson said it is difficult to say what impact the walkout has had on Vinyl Taco, adding it does not appear protests are in the works at other businesses his family operates.

Vinyl Taco continues to offer dine-in service with safety measures in place, he said. Also, to-go orders can be phoned in and picked up.

Thorson declined to talk specifics regarding wages at Vinyl Taco, but he said the pay is in the ballpark of what workers were demanding.

He said that prior to the walkout, Vinyl Taco was planning to give employees a bonus in their first paycheck after returning to work following the break prompted by the pandemic.

Thorson said he is hearing from employers in the area who are having difficulty finding people who want to work, noting that for some out-of-work individuals, unemployment benefits are higher than what they were making before being let go from their jobs.

In the case of Vinyl Taco, Thorson said they have seen a flood of highly qualified applicants who were let go from jobs elsewhere.

"They want to get back to work. That part of it is very encouraging," he said.

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com
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