PORTLAND, Maine — Few people should expect that come payday the pay won’t come.
Several young employees of Pockets, a shuttered Old Port sandwich shop, said they questioned their boss when it happened to them. They were met with pleas, reassurances, excuses and threats, they said. They responded by consulting attorneys, workers advocates and others for help.
Maine Department of Labor spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said workers should immediately file a complaint with the DOL’s wage and hour division, at 623-7900, especially if met with reasons for late pay that fall short of providing a clear answer about when pay will arrive and why it was delayed.
“The employer has until midnight on the scheduled payday to pay a person,” Rabinowitz wrote in an email. “After that, it is a missed payroll.”
State law requires the department not to disclose the identity of the complainant of wage and hour violations, Rabinowitz wrote, so employees are not required to confront a boss when filing a complaint with the state.
That process will become a little bit more complicated when Portland’s new minimum wage law takes effect in January, because the city will have to investigate wage violation complaints up to the new $10.10 hourly wage. The same would be true for other municipalities, including Bangor, if they approve a local minimum wage higher than the state’s $7.50 per hour.
Portland’s new ordinance allows employees doing work within city limits to file complaints with the city manager’s office, which has authority to review payroll records that the ordinance requires employees keep for at least three years after an employee has left.
Andy Schmidt, the labor attorney working with several Pockets employees, said he thinks the new law could result in some confusion, but a call from an attorney or a state official typically resolves wage or hour violations.
“The vast majority of business people are trying to follow the law,” Schmidt said.
That appears not to be the case for the former employees of Pockets sandwich shop owner Dennis Caris. They estimate he owes $12,000 in unpaid wages, money they had counted on for rent and basic necessities. Many of the employees said they took action, confronting their boss either separately or as a group and consulting an attorney and a workers’ advocacy group.
Rabinowitz said in a phone interview that the case at Pockets shows that workers should give a close look at employers before taking a job, too.
Caris was convicted in 2011 for collecting and keeping $35,860 in taxes at the Old Orchard Beach motel and inn The Caris Landings By the Sea. The attorney general’s office reported he also was convicted of a felony in 1991 for writing bad checks.
Caris did not respond to multiple attempts to contact him.
Former employee Madeline Gillespie, 18, said she learned of Caris’ felony convictions after other red flags prompted her to do more research into his history.
“I definitely would not have stayed there if I knew that sooner,” Gillespie said.
Rabinowitz said doing a Google search or basic background on an employee — whether for a career move or a summer job at a hot dog stand — can help avoid bad work situations from the start.
Rabinowitz said that a complaint to the state’s wage and hour division should come first. If pay isn’t on the way, looking for another job should come second.
“Employees need to make sure they’re not in a position where they are jeopardizing their own pay,” Rabinowitz said. “The first thing is to is call the state and start looking for another job.”
Rabinowitz said staff at the DOL’s Career Centers can help and an employee could ask to speak with them immediately after speaking with the wage and hour division.
DrewChristopher Joy, executive director of the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, said policymakers and employees in the city should understand that not all jobs are good jobs.
“A business like Pockets actually hurts this city,” Joy said.
While several employees quit previous jobs to work at Pockets, which promised higher pay, Rabinowitz said workers should not be afraid of quitting a bad job only for how it might affect their future job prospects.
“It’s OK to quit your job if you’re not being treated well,” Rabinowitz said, adding that bad employers “should have a hard time to find employees and that should force them to change their culture or go out of business.”