A bank teller handed Lee Davis back her check. Insufficient funds, he told her. Davis shook her head and asked him to try it again.
She’d heard rumors from co-workers that the boss was short on money. They couldn’t cash their checks, and if they could, they weren’t paid for all the hours they worked.
She’d heard the rumors, but it had never happened to her. The teller handed back the check a second time.
Davis left the bank, furious. She’d worked 83 hours that week, but her paystub only said 72. She drove to Mother’s Pub and Grill and found her boss sitting at the bar.
Patrick Schaller, the owner, waved her over. Davis made herself smile and pulled him aside.
“You need to give me my money right now,” she told him quietly. She threatened to sue.
Schaller remained calm and gave her cash out of the register to cover her check, Davis said. As for the missing hours, he said they’d handle that later.
They never did.
Davis, 20, is one of eight current and former employees who said they were routinely underpaid and taken advantage of by Schaller over the course of a year. Some accrued overdraft fees with each attempt to deposit their paychecks. Others cut their losses and never looked back. All told the story of a toxic work environment.
Tavarus Smith, 22, said he left his job at Steak N’ Shake for the promise of a higher wage at Mother’s. The small kitchen, with its broken appliances and grease-caked surfaces, was a disappointment, he said. His paychecks were, too.
He earned less than what was promised, less than what he earned at Steak N’ Shake. He didn’t complain, though, not even when his paychecks came back short. Those who did were fired, he said, and he needed the job. He has a child to raise.
This isn’t the first time Schaller’s been accused of mishandling funds. American Express Bank sued Schaller in 2013 for refusing to pay $24,625.57 worth of credit charges, according to court documents. Schaller lost the case and was ordered to repay at least $19,027.57 to the bank.
When contacted by The Alligator, Schaller texted in response: “Mother’s values our employees and our customers more than anything. If any individual staff member has concerns I would welcome them to come speak with me directly.”
The opposite is true, said Jonathan “Woody” Woodward, 39 and a former manager at Mother’s.
He sent the Alligator videos from Mother’s of cockroaches scrambling over the backs of appliances, and photos of check receipts that read “Not sufficient funds.” Schaller doesn’t care about his employees or customers, Woody said.
He never explained why funds were too low to hire an exterminator for the roaches or a plumber for the leaking toilets, Woody said. He never explained why employees were being paid late, and for fewer hours than they worked.
When confronted, Schaller evaded.
“Chevy is refusing to work tonight and Trevor refuses to stay until close,” Woody texted him one afternoon. “Why can’t they cash the checks?”
Another text to Schaller about the seeping, stinking toilets, then another about an employee who quit. No response, never until Schaller put enough money in the bank account to pay employees, Woody said. Even then, he made excuses.
“Money is tight, but everyone thinks there is an endless supply,” Schaller texted. “Everyone wants money but no one wants to work for it.”
People did work for it, Woody said. But it’s hard to run a restaurant that regularly runs out of ingredients – harder still when cooks quit in the middle of a shift because they don’t know if or when they’ll be paid next.
All the while, Schaller sits at the end of the bar.
“He’d sit there and drink, knowing he’s not gonna have enough money to pay everybody,” he said.
Woody quit in February.
Schaller announced April 10 that Mother’s Pub on University Avenue would permanently close. This came after Mother’s was cited for serving drinks inside rather than through to-go only, a new measure meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Five days later, Schaller announced that with the help of the city manager, Lee Feldman, the pub would remain open.
“We are doing this for our staff and customers,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
The employees who spoke with The Alligator disagreed.
“Pat made that decision for him,” said Elvin Baxter Jr., a 50-year-old Mother’s cook. “He ain’t making no decisions for us.”
Contact Hannah Phillips at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @haphillips96.