Business Behind the Curtains

Pats.jpgMany of us enjoy the U.P. because of the wildlife or natural scenery, low crime rate, etc; but, one thing we don’t like so much in the Western Upper Peninsula of Michigan is that jobs are hard to come by. That’s no doubt. Seeing that many of the towns here are small and the industrialized world isn’t so close, it’s not hard to understand the link between low population and few local jobs. In fact, a larger percentage of residents in the Western UP are on some form of government assistance to compensate for the lack of work, 1,473,614 people on food stamps, on average, for 2016 alone. (http://www.michigan.gov/documents/dhs/DHS-Trend_Table_02_269209_7.pdf)

On the other end of the employment spectrum, locally owning a small business in an area where employment is in short supply, but workers are very present, has benefits.

“They have the money, they make the rules how they want. We can do nothing about it.”

Prior to writing this article, we interviewed about 40 random employees and employers across the Western UP spanning from Pat’s Foods in Ontonagon to Walmart Employees in Ironwood, and many others. At just about every stop I made while running my errands I made it a point to briefly discuss business with the staff. It was about half and half when it came to positive and negative reviews of businesses by their own employees, but what bothered me is how few of the employees (and employers) knew some of the basic employee rights.

One example of this was most waiters and waitresses I spoke to had no idea that their wages, which is usually slightly above $4.00, combined with their tips, has to equal at least minimum wage; otherwise, their employer is obligated to pay the employee the difference. Unfortunately, some women are still going home with a $120 check for a full work week. Another unfortunate circumstance I seen, especially at Pat’s Foods in Ontonagon, was the amount of retail workers being forced to repay till shortages… with cash. Coincidentally, some of the workers’ wages were minimum wage before they paid their “dues” to the store. Not only did we find that many of the employees who believed they were being taken advantage of failed to understand their rights, but that the ones who did understand their rights were afraid to say anything about it.

I think we all know someone who has worked for grandpa or uncle for some extra cash. Many times personal jobs like that are under the table and no one really is concerned too much about the legality of it. Much of the businesses in the area are locally owned and operated, with family members being employees. So many things are swept under the rug for the sake of “family ties”, I’m sure. When small towns give leeway to otherwise punishable actions or scenarios, you end up with a very biased and unfair place to be employed. “Deal with it.” we hear. “No one is going to listen to the workers because the manager is best friends/married to/cousin to/etc the owner”.  While this may be extremely beneficial for those favored few dodging dress codes/coming in late/ etc things that would be punishable otherwise, for the other employees, they may feel hopeless.
Which is the exact words used by one Ontonagon woman.

“I felt hopeless”

She said to me regarding a recollection of her termination from Pat’s Foods in Ontonagon. She had described to me an event leading up to her firing in which she was engaged in a medical crisis seeing to her sick husband. Her husband was mentally ill and battling with a few conditions that sparked intense concern among his family. In response to this concern she tells me she informed her boss and co-workers of the situation, and was denied the time off to see to her husband.

“I took my husband to the Emergency Room at the Ontonagon Hospital and they decided that he needed to be placed in a psych ward. I would be responsible for transporting him to the hospital. I called Pat’s Foods to let them know that I needed the weekend off to get my husband situated in a hospital and I was told that if I didn’t show up for my shift on Saturday that I would not have a job.”

Her husband later died.

Whilst this happened to one woman who had worked there, in June of 2017 another Ontonagon woman working for Pat’s Foods with a learning disability was asked to pay cash money back to the store manager for a customer’s check that had bounced during a private phone call. She was told to the effect:

“You will not work here another day until you pay me.” 

While the 21 year old woman was not terminated for disagreeing to the demand, she was soon after terminated for not working her scheduled shifts… after being told she wasn’t to return to work until she had paid up. Fortunately for her, she was educated about her rights and advised to turn the case over to an attorney.
Many workers have had similar experiences with being seemingly strong-armed out of their money under the nose of the law, even the handbook for the job states that you are responsible for money that comes up missing, even if it is later found (yes, another woman found the missing money and was not reimbursed for her out of pocket covering of it).. legal? We aren’t sure. I was denied information when I pursued to investigate the matter. This may seem like a large shot at Pat’s Foods, and I hope that you, as the reader understand that this is all coming from local people here, not from me or my team’s personal opinions.

“I would say that 90% of the problems circulating around these local businesses is because there is no communication from the management. We are taken for granted, but they don’t listen to us. They won’t listen to us.”

Says one Paynesville man, who has been working local retail for over 40 years.

Among all of the negative opinions from employees we interviewed was one reoccurring demeanor: Management needs to change, their bosses should listen to them and heed their concerns. While on the flip side of the coin, when I interviewed the bosses and put questions to them like:

  • How do you maintain employee communication?
  • Do you feel it is effective?
  • Do you feel like your employees are happy with their job and feel appreciated?
  • What would you say is the biggest challenge for you as a manager in relation to staff morale?

Many of them had no idea how their employees truly felt, but thought they were doing a great job. Employer testimonies were not in conjunction with those of the employees themselves. This only speaks volumes about the real problem at hand among small businesses: honesty. All too often it seems that in the workplace, professional relationships that have no place for the concerns of each other resulted in miscommunication between the staff and the management – ultimately resulting in the discomfort of the staff as a whole. While one points a finger at another, the silent truth remains that many of the problems at hand could be avoided if both parties took more consideration to the needs of the other.

“I love my job. Good pay, and an amazing staff.”

Says an employee from Syl’s Cafe of Ontonagon.

Not everyone had something bad to say about their work. Some employees loved their job and felt like they were among some of the most friendly staff. This feeds into the above correlation. Out of those employees interviewed who had positive feedback in relation to their workplace, many accredited their comfortable atmosphere to the courtesy of their managers and the respect of their co-workers. It isn’t hard to see how the working class of the UP can bridge the divide between employers and employees.

They say people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses.
Hopefully the rest of the world will catch on to the idea that respect goes a long way.