Wage-theft victim shares her story

Melissa Elliott, shown at her home on Wednesday in Gainesville, said she experienced wage theft in the past.

Lee Ferinden/Correspondent
Published: Sunday, March 17, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 6:44 p.m.

Melissa Elliott didn't realize she'd be paid “off the books” when she began working as a cook at a local restaurant. But when she was handed cash instead of a check, she rolled with it.

She figured it was either take the cash or take a hike.

“It's really hard to say no when it's money, especially in a town this small,” she said. “I didn't really have any other options.”

Elliott, 32, has been working in restaurants since she was a teenager, and Gainesville is a smaller town with fewer restaurants than other places she's lived.

In bigger cities, there are plenty of other places to work if one gig falls through. But not here, she said. And in the downtown restaurant scene, word spreads if you and your employer butt heads.

Her wage problems with her former employer — whom she declined to name — didn't stop with the cash payments.

She said she was shorted hours in her pay. She agreed to work as a server for tips only in addition to her full-time cooking job — a side job she thought she'd only do a few times to help with the seasonal influx of customers — and was told no when she asked for an hourly wage after regularly covering those shifts for a few months.

Her boss responded: You agreed to tips only, and I can find three other people who are OK with that if you aren't.

She didn't want to quit. It would force her back into the job market in a tough economy, and she wanted to stay at least a year to show her reliability as she built a career as a cook.

Elliott was fired recently when she said she was working a busy shift with a fever and dropped a couple of dishes. She was told she had a bad attitude, Elliott said. But she believes her abrupt dismissal was, at least in part, because she was asking questions about how she and other employees were paid.

“I think what really turned the tide,” she said, “(was) because I stopped accepting their answers.”

As she hunted for employment after getting fired, she had to go on food stamps and she started donating plasma because she needed extra money.

Elliott was hired at her new job because her boss liked her commitment to establishing a career. Elliott said the new boss also appreciated the attitude that she believes got her fired from her last position: not being afraid to ask questions.

Had she been able to turn to the county as a mediator to help her deal with her payroll problems, she might have been encouraged to leave her job, she said, rather than be fired. She also would have had concrete evidence of her employer's wrongdoing, she says, to combat the gossip that she's heard is spreading about her in the local restaurant community.

That mediator may arrive soon in the form of a local wage-theft ordinance if the Alachua County Commission approves one and gets buy-in from the county's municipalities, which also could nullify the measure within their city limits.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gvillesun.com.

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