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. (

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.


22 thoughts on “Business Behind the Curtains

  1. Interesting article on employer-employee relations. Do you think those relationships have changed in anyway since the closing of mills and mines (and even bigger stores like K-Mart in Ironwood and Iron Mountain) in the UP? Keep on investigating!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Frank, from the people that I talked to who were around for the business boom of the mines and mills, they seemed to be in aggreement that those were simpler times. I’d say they were happier then.


  2. My son worked at Pat’s in Ontonagon for little over a year. He came home most days with stories about how the manager mistreated him and his coworkers. But he stayed because it was a paycheck.
    Then when his graduation came up the manager, who was used to hiring high school students, expected him to work and miss his own graduation. After he refused he started getting assigned crap work. He was upset about it and talked about quitting, but it was a paycheck.
    My son planned on going down to Wisconsin (where we moved from) to visit his friends over the week of his birthday at the end of the summer. He gave multiple notices both verbal and written, always given the impression from his manager that there wasn’t a problem.
    After returning, his hours were immediately cut more than half and was given even worse duties. Including scrubbing the mop boards under the shelves by hand. When he asked the manager why his hours were cut he was told that he wasn’t there when they needed him so he wasn’t going to get what he needed (not his exact words, because it’s been almost a year since he worked there so I can’t remember exactly, but that is what he meant). He quit on the spot.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I worked for Pat’s Foods in Ontonagon for a year and saw what was going on. Discipline being done in front of customers by the manager, uncalled for. That needs to be done in privacy of the office, not for everyone to hear. He also was arguing with someone on the phone at the 1st register, quite loudly. This should also have been taken in the office behind closed doors, not in front of customers. I had comments from customers about it as I was working that register at the time.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I worked for Pat’s Foods for four years, off and on. I only ever called off when I was too sick to speak and was always told I was a great and hardworking employee by my direct managers. The actual office management rarely wanted anything to do with me. Except the previous manager, Brad, who definitely made me feel appreciated. When they got rid of him (which is a story on its own), the decline was that much more obvious.

    Toward the end of my time there, I requested to go home because I felt like I was going to faint, was given the ol’ eyeroll and “fine, i guess,” and ended up going to the ER only a couple hours later. The doctor told me not to go in the next day and I called them as soon as they opened (as by then Pat’s was closed) to let them know I was too sick to work and would have a doctor’s note.
    My grandmother the next day overheard some of the older cashiers/day shift managers telling customers in line I was probably faking it just to get out of work. Completely missing that she was saying it in front of my own grandmother, it’s pretty likely this was the story all day. When she realized that my grandmother heard, she promptly apologized, but by then it was pretty obvious we all knew what was going on. I stuck with it, though, despite knowing that none of management actually cared about my well-being.

    A few months later the manager of the store, David, refused to ban a customer that had been relentlessly stalking me. This had been an issue for years. At one point, I called the police, but that wasn’t enough. Realizing that they valued the $40 this customer spent a week over my own safety, I put in my two weeks notice the next day. David literally hides from me when I enter the store to this day, six years later.

    I never lied, I never stole, I came to work when I was scheduled, I went above and beyond my duties frequently and I never once had a customer complaint about me. Except the one who thought stalking me was a compliment. This was my first job and I’ve worked several since then and to this day I have never felt so unwanted and unappreciated at a job.

    This is probably enough information to pinpoint who I am, whoops, but I definitely want to speak out.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am sorry to read about how Pat’s Manager has treated employees. I overheard a worker being bawled out for someone’s else’s mistake. (It was a very minor kind error.) The manager demanded that the worker find the one who made the mistake and make him/her correct it. This is only one example of inappropriate, belittling interaction the manager has had with workers. (I wrote to Pat’s headquarters regarding what I had observed.)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Angel and Kathleen, I’m very sorry that the experiences that both of you had in Ontonagon were unpleasant, I don’t know the manager from that store but sounds as though he is a piece of work. That being said, I have worked for Pat’s in Hurley WI since the store opened in Dec. and all the experiences I have had with the company have been very positive, my boss and the owners are very receptive to what I say and how I run my dept. overall I am much happier working for Pat’s over my previous job at O’Reilly Auto Parts, that story is for another place though. Just thought I would add my personal take on Pat’s Foods.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You should look into the price gouging happening in Calumet & other Pat’s Foods. The way they rape their customers is atrocious & refuse to lower their prices & refuse to sell out dated stock. I refuse to shop there anymore when you pay over $3 more for the exact same product from them.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m curious – do cashiers then get to pocket the $ when / if their registers are over? I’m guessing not. This sounds like a gross abuse of power at best and completely illegal at worst. I really encourage you or the employees to look into their options of reporting this practice to a regulatory official. I’m disappointed that Pats does not – at very least – seem concerned with developing a positive company culture after many years of complaints from the community. The employees deserve better.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. While I understand your desire to share this information with your readers, may I suggest having your copy edited before you post it? This story would also have benefited from a comment from a lawyer who handles these situations.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. i worked at pats foods in ontonagon for a couple years and they have the nastiest manager I have ever seen! He is down-right nasty and mean to the workers and customers. I have heard he has been complained about many times to the owners, yet nothing has ever happened. after working there i can say one thing for sure, he has a problem with women, as in he doesnt like them in general. He is not a liked person in this town! Nothing is ever done about it, I guess the owners just dont care, all about the money they are sooo over priced. If you shop there I suggest you check you check the dates on EVERYTHING you buy , because they are also known to sell WAY OUTDATED groceries!!


  11. You’d think with all workers that have quit, fired or the ones that have complained. Something would’ve of been done with this manager? I no longer shop at on onto Iga store. I travel the extra hour to go to another store even if it’s for a stick of butter. I can’t stand that tall pencil neck manager.


  12. I found this article very interesting, I worked at a Pat’s store as well… Not my best employment memories. I think you should expand this article because there are more businesses that need the scrutiny. You should look into the holiday gas stations, they don’t allow their employees any breaks not even a lunch during a 10 hour shift.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. the manager would scan the security tapes for the workers to see if they stopped moving/or started talking with a customer too long. then when he had his victim picked out he would call them in the office confront them with the vid then threaten their job if they would not sign a paper stating they admitted the waste of company time and allow the company to dock there electronic paycheck that amount. I personally witnessed the robbery of a young bagboy of 8 hours of his paycheck for the week because he did not know to stand up for himself and just say no. of course he would have been fired or received diminished or bad shifts if he had. I had respect for the owners until they refused to fire this sociopath who runs the store. usave is no better also gouging a trapped public and also owned by the same boys.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Ontonagon IGA PATS

    I have personally heard Dave yelling at an employee in the aisle. When I started going down that aisle Dave stopped, but you could hear him several aisles over.
    Some employees have been there for years but they arn’t the same friendly people they were. I have been told they are not allowed to talk to the customers anymore. really?
    I have a friend that works there now & she is terrified of Dave. Her hours have been cut & is being harassed over simple things by Dave at every opportunity. This employee is under so much stress she can’t even sleep at night.
    We have been trying to get her to quit & get another job. No employee should have to put up with working under those situations ever.
    Solution: Get rid of that terrible manager!
    I now shop out of town 50 miles away.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. This is distressing to read. I don’t live on the west end (of the U.P.) anymore to have recent experience with Pat’s IGA in Ontonagon, but I have a heart for the employee & community situation there. So sorry. It sounds like legal advice should be sought, and, perhaps a petition to HQ for removal of the store manager? Wondering too, if there may be underlying medical/psychological issues re. manager’s behaviors? What is manager’s history? Has anyone known this person for a long time to have observed behavior changes? What kind of training programs does HQ implement for its management? I sure hope things can be resolved for all concerned, for the community, and for the employee’s wellbeing. Best wishes from a former Ontonagon Co. resident.


  16. One thing I would like to add, how many cashiers over the past 8 years have ever sold a grocery item to Dave. How does he get by without ever buying groceries. Stealing outdated groceries is still stealing. Pulling coupons off items before they get passed on to the customers is not illegal, but if you send them in for reimbursement and cash the check…it is illegal. Ben knows all about his antics, but looks the other way.


  17. I worked at L’Anse Pats foods and I know all about these miserable accounts. The L’Anse Pats foods is just as bad .


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