It appears the minimum wage fight has hit the BBQ belt – and one Kansas City employer just got sauced by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Meet Gates & Sons Barbeque of Missouri, a chain of BBQ joints in the Kansas City, MO area.
It’s Main Street Kansas City location provides the following benefits to its employees:
- a free lunch valued at between $6 and $10 on the day of an employee’s shift
- the ability to make purchases on a “tab” that would be deducted from employees’ paychecks, and
- monthly performance bonuses if bonus standards were achieved.
One day last summer, a number of employees at the Main Street location participated in a campaign by Kansas City food workers, which was spurred by local labor organizations like the Workers’ Organizing Committee of Kansas City (WOC), to increase wages for similarly situated workers across the area.
Between seven and nine employees of Gates & Sons’ Main Street location engaged in a one-day strike to protest their wages. Starting wages at the BBQ shop were just above minimum wage, and the WOC was trying to push food workers’ wages to at least $15 per hour.
‘No meals, no loans, no tabs’
Upon returning to work the day after the strike, Gates & Sons’ employees found that their free meal had been taken off the benefit menu.
Employee notices posted at the Main Street location read: “There will be no employee meals, no loans, no tabs. Don’t ask.”
The employees should’ve had an idea they’d face some negative consequences for their strike — as their manager had warned them ahead of time that if they participated in the strike, they’d “feel [his] wrath.”
When the WOC brought the situation to the NLRB’s attention, an administrative law judge for the board found that denying the free meal, along with the manager’s comments, were proof that Gates & Sons’ employees had been retaliated against for their “concerted activity,” which was protected under the National Labor Relations Act.
The punishment for the employer: The NLRB judge ruled it had to reinstate the free employee meal benefit and make employees whole for the period during which they were denied the benefit.
All benefits are protected
The takeaway for employers from this case is pretty straightforward: Any time an employee or group of employees participate in concerted activity to improve working conditions (like wages), they can’t be denied a benefit — even an nontraditional one like free meals — or otherwise be retaliated against in any way for taking part in that activity.
It’s unclear whether Gates & Sons was totally unaware that retaliation for taking part in a strike would be found unlawful, or if they thought taking away something as small as a free meal would fail to create a blip on the NLRB’s radar.
But the lesson here is clear: Retaliation in any form — no matter how small — can have an employer feeling the wrath of the NLRB.