Photo by Sarah Mirk

AS TEMPERATURES dropped below freezing on the afternoon of Saturday, December 12, one group of Portlanders remained obstinately outdoors: a dozen protestors outside recently opened Vietnamese/American restaurant Toast & Pho.

Former Toast & Pho employee Teresa Nguyen handed out flyers to passersby reading, "Shame on Toast & Pho!" Nguyen is the third of four former Toast & Pho employees to file an unpaid wage claim with the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI)—quite the track record for a restaurant that opened its doors on November 1.

Nguyen was among four workers fired on opening day, which she describes as "total chaos." All those filing claims say the restaurant's owners did not keep track of hours or tips.

After the disastrous day, Nguyen and coworker David Sokolowski were placed indefinitely "on call." By Sokolowski's calculations, he was still owed $306 in tips and wages. Nguyen says she was shorted about $100.

Sokolowski contacted the Portland Restaurant Workers Association (PRWA), a loose service-workers advocacy group that distributes a handbook called, "Know Your Rights!: A Restaurant Worker's Survival Guide."

The PRWA walked Sokolowski through how to file a wage claim with BOLI and when the ex-waiter returned to Toast & Pho on November 8, demanding his final paycheck and showing the owners the legal paperwork, the café cut him a check on the spot.

Things did not go so smoothly for the second round of complaints. Along with Nguyen, former dishwasher Pedro Rendon filed an unpaid wage claim over the weekend for roughly $1,000 and former General Manager Frank Clow says he is owed $7,007 for the month he spent helping set up and launch the restaurant.

On Friday, December 11, Nguyen and Clow marched into Toast & Pho, formally demanding their wages as required by BOLI.

"They started saying that they'd paid me too much and should ask for some of the money back," says Nguyen, of owners Tan Vo and Titi Nguyen. Saturday morning, the PRWA hit NW 21st outside Toast & Pho with protest signs and flyers.

Clow, 66, says it was the first protest of his life. He came out of retirement to help start up Toast & Pho after meeting the owners at a restaurant equipment auction.

Toast & Pho Manager Vo says his business broke no laws and that all workers have been fully paid. "If someone owes you money, you will hire a lawyer to get the money back, not stand in the cold for two hours protesting," says Vo. "This is a dirty game from someone who wants to shut us down."

Clow, Teresa Nguyen, and the PRWA are not sure whether the street protests will continue. Nguyen is interviewing for another restaurant job and as for Clow, he says, "I intend to stay retired this time."