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BOISE — It was a familiar sight in Boise along Broadway Avenue on Wednesday evening.

Several dozen masked protesters waved signs from the sidewalk and earned honks from cars passing by near Boise State University. But this time demonstrators were marching for a different reason than the Black Lives Matter events that sprung up in downtown last month. Their signs said “Honk for fair wages” and called for passersby to support the workers of popular late-night pizza spot Pie Hole’s Broadway location.

In the past two weeks, the ownership of the restaurant and its workers have been in conflict over worker requests to negotiate raises and have more say in the workplace amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Restaurant owner Geo Engberson said management was not given enough time to look at the workers’ requests and employees were being insubordinate, but former workers say management was prepared to replace them due to their push for raises.

The issue of how restaurant workers are paid and the loss of tips due to the change in how people buy their food is not unique to Pie Hole. Due to the spread of COVID-19, many restaurants are relying more heavily on third-party delivery services such as DoorDash to get their food to customers. These apps allow users to add a tip, but those funds go to the driver who delivers their food, not the staff who prepare it. This has left restaurant staff with a huge dip in take-home pay, even if they are allowed to return to work.

Though at Pie Hole workers are paid $10.15 to $12 an hour plus tips, according to workers and payroll documents reviewed by the Idaho Press, many restaurant workers are paid far below the typical minimum wage of $7.25 because they get tips. The minimum wage for tipped workers in Idaho is $3.35 per hour.

Kayleigh Palmer, 25, said prior to the pandemic she would regularly take home $100 in tips from working a single Saturday night at the Broadway Pie Hole, but this took a steep dive in recent months.

The dispute at Pie Hole came to a head earlier this month when at least two workers were fired and others walked out in solidarity, leaving only two of the 10 employees left working in the restaurant.

Palmer was among the workers fired. She said the large majority of the employees of the restaurant came together with a letter asking for $3-per-hour raises for all employees to compensate for the loss of tips and shift in business model to mostly takeout and delivery, as well as the ability for workers to vote on issues like a sign banning firearms in the store and the organization of items in the restaurant.

But she said instead of addressing the letter and coming to the negotiating table, management started looking to replace them with workers who would be willing to work for what the jobs paid

“We had turned in a statement that was agreed upon by nine out of 10 employees and instead of negotiating with us at all or even making a comment specifically the manager just started doing tons of interviews for new hires,” she said. “I was there when he did five new interviews, and I was like, ‘Shoot he’s trying to hire a bunch of scabs.’”

Palmer said when they confronted management about all of the new hires, they were told management was hiring new employees to replace workers in case there was a walkout. When Palmer and other higher ranking staff members said they would refuse to train replacement workers, they were fired for not completing their job duties, according to Palmer and Engborson. Others walked out at the same time.

Engberson, who took ownership of the restaurant only a few weeks before the pandemic hit, contests the former employee’s version of events. He said the manager conducted interviews to hire “one or two” more people, but the employees thought they were replacements, which led to the walkout. He also said the letter from the workers surprised him because he thought, based on previous conversations with workers and small raises given out under new management, they were happy.

“We took ownership March 1, and then the pandemic happened and it kicked our butts and it depleted our bank accounts,” Engberson said. “March and April were just bad, and then May we were making a recovery and able to use DoorDash and Uber Eats to hold up. We didn’t have a good profit margin with those, but we were able to give raises out to our crew.”

Palmer said they were given small wage increases, but they were “insufficient” to help workers make ends meet without the tips they were used to getting. She said most of the workers are adults and some have children and other expenses to keep up with, including the added burden of child care now that school is out and some workers have lost their second jobs.

TIPS ARE ‘CRUCIAL’

To help make up the difference for restaurant workers who have lost tips, Tyler Brewington created a “virtual tip jar” for Boise to help connect customers directly with the workers at their favorite restaurants to help send them funds to get them through the pandemic.

Brewington did not comment specifically on the situation at Pie Hole, but he said one of the major obstacles restaurant workers have faced in recent months is a lack of knowledge people outside the industry have about how little workers are paid and how tips factor into their income.

“If there are no in-person customers or a significant reduction in the amount of customers a business can actually service, it makes it impossible to make a living basically,” he said. “If tips are part of your income, it’s quite low. I’m not sure everyone realizes how crucial tips are to people’s ability to make a living.”

Service industry workers are eligible for unemployment benefits, and the amount they receive is based on their income, which includes tips that were reported to their employer. If they have their hours reduced, they are eligible for some assistance if they earn less than 1.5 times their weekly benefit amount, according to Department of Labor spokeswoman Georgia Smith.

Since the walkout, Palmer and the other workers have picketed the store twice and are trying to gather support from others. Groups supporting them include the Boise DSA, an offshoot of the Democratic Socialists of America, and The Red Republicans, a Marxist wing of the Boise DSA. Palmer and the other workers are not a legally recognized labor union, but she said they are researching their next steps to see if Engberson broke the law for firing them for trying to bargain collectively.

Palmer said the workers told management they were open to negotiating with management and wanted a resolution everyone could live with.

“What (Engberson) said to the press so far is we wanted $3 an hour and we wouldn’t budge, but that’s not true,” she said.

But, Engberson once again views things differently.

“The groups they’re affiliated with are just anti-capitalists, and they’re just trying to destroy a small business,” he said.

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