With dishes in hand, Katie Wilson, 27, headed into the Applebee’s kitchen in Coralville as her shift drew to a close.
The Ames native said she leaned over the sink and began her nightly routine of washing the plates when she heard something her managers said that she wasn’t supposed to hear.
They were discussing taking tips from the other employees, Wilson recalled.
“It was very bizarre,” Wilson, a University of Iowa graduate with majors in English and theater arts, said in recalling the incident from September 2014. She had worked for Applebee’s six years.
“I didn’t expect to hear a topical conversation about it. I confronted them and was told that I wasn’t supposed to hear that.”
Earlier this year, she and a co-worker traveled to Des Moines to support wage reform legislation. They spoke at a news conference hosted by state Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, co-sponsor of the reform bill, which passed the Senate but stalled in the House during the Iowa legislative session that ended this month.
They claimed that management was taking some of their tip money from a tip pool that was set up to share with co-workers.
With Bisignano and bill co-sponsor, Sen. William Dotzler, D-Waterloo, standing nearby, Wilson said she made $4.35 an hour, which is well under the state’s minimum wage, and depended on tips to supplement the hourly wage. She said management rejected their request for a meeting to discuss a change in the policy and repayment of the tip money.
The tip pool was supposed to be shared with bar tenders, hosts and busboys. But management was taking money from that pool when those workers were not on duty to share it with, she said in a later audio recording with University of Iowa student journalist Rani Simawe.
After overhearing the manager’s conversation, she spent the subsequent month searching for what to do and came across the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa. Before approaching the center, Wilson knew nothing about Iowa’s enforcement policies or the process of filing a wage claim through the Iowa Workforce Development.
In Iowa, filing a wage claim is a long process handled by the wage payment collection and minimum wage staff in the Iowa Workforce Development’s Division of Labor. The staff that processes these claims consists of one full-time wage investigator and an executive officer who splits her time between two departments.
Wilson didn’t file a claim and instead reached out to Misty Rebik, executive director of the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa and contributor to a 2012 Iowa Policy Project wage theft report.
Money and resources limit the center, which forces it to be strategic when deciding which cases to which to allocate time.
The center took on the campaign because Wilson’s case affected more than one or two people and is prevalent within many cash-based businesses — not just Applebee’s.
Iowa’s Labor Services Division reported 651 wage claims filed in 2014.
As for the disposition of Wilson’s claim, Applebee’s repaid her a small amount of money, but it and Wilson give different versions of how the government resolved her complaint.
Wilson and Rebik said the U.S. Department of Labor investigation determined that the complaint was correct. But Mackenzi Miller, a manager at the Coralville location, said the location was found “with nothing wrong” and that “they passed with flying colors” on everything the labor board sought.
Molly Mulholland, who works for the Department of Labor’s wage and hour investigations unit in Cedar Rapids, said she could not discuss the case and referred IowaWatch to her supervisor, who did not respond to requests for an interview.
Nevertheless, Applebee’s agreed in a letter to Wilson that employees were owed money from a tip pool, but said it follows guidelines under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
Wilson provided IowaWatch with a copy of the letter. It said the restaurant acknowledged employees were owed $78 for three morning shifts in September 2014, with Wilson’s share being $14.12.
l This story was produced by Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a non-profit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.