'They're Treating Us Like We're Disposable'
Workers allege widespread disregard for pandemic safety guidelines at one of Knoxville’s biggest restaurant chains.
by jesse fox mayshark • may 20, 2020
calhoun's on the river in downtown knoxville.
UPDATE, 1:48 p.m. May 20: This article has been updated with a statement from Copper Cellar Family of Restaurants.
Diandra Heck had concerns when she was called back to her job as a bartender at Calhoun’s in Turkey Creek.
With no enforcement of county health guidelines, employees are fending for themselves.
It’s not that she didn’t want to work — she had been with the restaurant, part of the high-profile Copper Cellar company, for seven years. Heck was laid off in March when the coronavirus pandemic hit, and she missed her coworkers and her regulars.
But she is also asthmatic, and she wasn’t sure the time was yet right to reopen restaurants to the public at the beginning of May.
“When they called me, I had told them I was uncomfortable coming back,” Heck said in an interview Tuesday. She asked to delay returning for two weeks, but she was told if she didn’t return to work the company would cut off her unemployment benefits.
At first, she said, Calhoun’s management appeared to be taking seriously the guidelines issued by the Knox County Health Department for Phase One of its reopening plan. There were masks and gloves for servers, tables were spaced apart, and the restaurant was operating at 50 percent capacity.
(One item was never followed, she said. The restaurant had employees sign a paper before each shift saying their temperature had been taken, but that never actually happened.)
Things got more lax over the following weeks, and Heck’s concerns escalated when Calhoun’s started seating patrons at the bar — an explicit violation of the Health Department guidelines, and one that put her uncomfortably close to patrons for prolonged periods. When Heck objected, she said a general manager at first accommodated her by not seating anyone there during her shifts.
But that changed when she went into work on Sunday, and she was told she either had to serve patrons seated at the bar or take a table server position that would almost certainly pay her less. When she refused to do either, she was told those were her only options. She walked out.
Heck recounted her experience in a Facebook post Monday, which as of Tuesday afternoon had generated more than 450 likes and had been shared 975 times.
“These guidelines were set for the safety of our workers,” Heck wrote in her post. “Copper Cellar restaurants do not care about that at all.”
Her post resonated with Jade Cunningham, co-founder of the recently formed group Knoxville Service Industry United, which has been advocating for service workers during the pandemic.
“There’s no enforcing it,” Cunningham said of the Health Department’s guidelines. “Not only is there no enforcing it, no one cares. Local government doesn’t seem to care at all.”
She said she had heard similar concerns from many other workers in the Copper Cellar group, which was founded by longtime Knoxville restaurateur Mike Chase. The company’s restaurants include Calhoun’s, Copper Cellar, Chesapeake’s, Cappuccino’s and Smoky Mountain Brewery.
“I feel like Mike Chase just feels like he’s above the law, he can do whatever he wants,” Heck said. “There are other people out there who are the same way.”
A call for comment to Copper Cellar was not returned on Tuesday, but a representative sent a statement on Wednesday after this article was originally published.
Bart Fricks, chief operating officer for Copper Cellar Family of Restaurants, said Copper Cellar's company policy prohibits commenting publicly on personnel issues.
In an emailed statement, Fricks said, "From the beginning of the pandemic, Copper Cellar Family of Restaurants has followed and adhered to all recommendations and requirements from the State of Tennessee. Because Copper Cellar operates 20 restaurants in five counties and six cities, the company has also endeavored to abide by the variety of ever-changing requirements and guidelines from the numerous cities and counties it operates in."
In Knox County, under Gov. Bill Lee's orders, the authority to set reopening guidelines rests with the county Health Department.
‘The Last Straw’
One person who read Heck’s Facebook post was Crystal Hong, who until Monday was a Calhoun’s manager. Heck’s post resonated with many of her own concerns about the way the company had handled the pandemic.
“That was honestly kind of the last straw for me,” Hong said in an interview Tuesday.
She had been uncomfortable ordering employees back to work who had safety concerns, and she had witnessed the same violations of the county’s guidelines that Heck recounted. Monday afternoon, she wrote her general manager and said she was quitting.
Hong then wrote a Facebook post of her own, which by yesterday afternoon had 760 likes and 475 shares. She recounted her experiences since starting at Calhoun’s in February. A longtime restaurant worker, she had taken the job excited to work for one of the largest restaurant groups in the region.
But during the closure in March and April forced by state and local government orders, Hong said she saw an avaricious side of the company that appeared unconcerned with the public health crisis.
She said, “It was all, ‘How do we make more money? How do we profit from this?’”
All servers were laid off, but managers were required to work up to seven days a week to provide to-go orders — with no overtime, because they were salaried — and they were also given the choice of either taking a 25 percent pay cut or being laid off.
“I, along with many other managers, toughed it out working more hours on less pay because at least we were somewhat guaranteed a job once the pandemic was over,” Hong wrote in her post. “I have two small children. I couldn’t afford to be jobless.”
When Knox County first relaxed its restrictions on May 1, allowing restaurants to open at half-capacity, Hong said she was dismayed by the push to bring workers back regardless of any health concerns they might have.
“It’s a multi-million-dollar company, they can afford to have some employees stay on unemployment for a few weeks,” she said.
But she said she was told the company had received a federal Payroll Protection Program forgivable loan to cover employee salaries, and it had to be used in the next eight weeks or paid back.
“The issue was, ‘Well, we have to use this money, so if they don’t come back, they lose unemployment,’” she said.
Hong said she knows not all restaurants are taking the same approach. Before taking the job at Calhoun’s, she worked for years at the Nama restaurant group, which she said has been putting its employees’ safety first.
“They have outdone themselves to take care of their employees during this pandemic,” she said.
And she said she had met many conscientious and dedicated people at Calhoun’s, too — “I don’t want the good people working for that company to feel like I was taking a shot at them.”
But, as she wrote at the end of her Facebook post, “I cannot work for a company that views their employees as nothing but an expendable and replaceable number. So I’ve chosen to walk away.”
From the beginning of the pandemic restrictions, Knox County officials have made clear that they are relying on voluntary compliance from business owners. There is no real enforcement mechanism for violations of Phase One limits on capacity or other guidelines.
Asked at Tuesday’s Knox County Health Department briefing about reports of companies instructing their employees to violate the rules, department director Dr. Martha Buchanan said, "I think it's really unfortunate when an employer or owner chooses to ignore public health guidelines. It puts the public and their employees at risk, and as we've said many, many times, we rely on the good judgment and good will of employers and employees to follow these guidelines."
The Health Department said it has received 208 complaints since May 1 about businesses not observing the Phase One guidelines. Buchanan suggested the best response was to avoid those businesses.
“What I would say to the public, if you want to send a message to those not following the guidelines, is to vote with your pocketbook and choose not to patronize those locations,” Buchanan said. “It does put people at risk when they don't follow the guidelines."
Cunningham said that’s what she’s telling people, too, in the absence of any other options. But she said the problem with that approach is that it leaves workers exposed.
“It’s insane to think that tipped workers, people who are making $2.13 an hour, have to take on all the safety responsibility when no one seems to care what happens to them,” she said.
Heck said the lesson she received from her experience was straightforward and dispiriting.
“They’re treating us like we’re disposable,” she said. “That’s the message I was trying to get out.”
For her part, she’s done with restaurant work. She just finished her anthropology degree at the University of Tennessee, and she’s planning to pursue professional options in that field.
“It kind of put me in a hole,” she said of losing the job. “But I’m a strong girl, I can get back on my feet.”
Hong, who has made restaurants her career, said her Facebook post has already generated numerous inquiries and job offers from other local restaurants, which she said are taking a more caring approach to their employees.
“I’m happy that I did what I did,” Hong said, both of leaving her job and going public with her concerns. “Any company, whether it’s the restaurant industry or any other company out there, you need to make your staff your top priority.”