Less than a week after local landmark Muralt's Café shut its doors, putting at least 15 waitresses, busboys and cooks out of work, a local labor union leader has alleged that café owner Walt Muralt threatened to withhold severance packages from outgoing employees if they speak ill of the establishment.
"Walt demanded they withhold anything negative," says Mark Anderlik from UNITE HERE Local 427, which represents outgoing Muralt's Café employees, many of whom also worked for All Events Catering, an affiliated company owned by Muralt.
UNITE HERE's claims mark the latest skirmish between Muralt and organized labor. Last December, the union filed a claim with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which investigates allegations of unfair labor practices, claiming Muralt failed to fully cooperate in contract negotiations. The complaint also stated that Muralt's withheld gratuities due to All Events Catering employees.
"There was an issue in our case that concerned the distribution of tips and how much the catering parties were charging and how much the employer received," says Seattle-based NLRB Regional Director Richard Ahearn.
Anderlick asserts that Muralt's took more than $6,000 in service charges slated for employees in 2009.
"Muralt's would charge the 15 percent and then would keep 5 percent for themselves to cover overhead costs," Anderlik says. "One hundred percent of that service charge is supposed to go to the workers. That violates the custom in the catering business and it also violates state law."
Muralt acknowledges the house took a portion of the service charge, using proceeds to pay catering company expenses. However, he denies the money was a gratuity. "It certainly wasn't tips," Muralt says.
Anderlik ceased pursuing the NLRB complaint in February, when Muralt again agreed to negotiate. It appeared Muralt and the union found common ground last week, when Muralt agreed to pay his former staff two weeks of pay—in some cases more—and end the service charge dispute with a $3,900 settlement.
Anderlik says days after the parties agreed to the tentative settlement, Muralt, upset about a Missoulian article that publicly broached the tip grievance, added a stipulation to the severance agreement obligating employees to not speak publicly about labor disputes.
"He added a loophole statement with a gag order," Anderlik says.
Muralt denies the allegations, but declines to elaborate on contract specifics until after a severance deal is inked.
"I'll table the conversation until we resolve the actions we're taking," he says.