FARGO — Citing safety promises not being kept, Vinyl Taco employees walked out of the downtown restaurant in protest early Saturday, May 9.

“We were promised measures of safety that have not been available to us,” said Michael Strike, a line cook and organizer of the walkout. “In the service industry we are not offered any health insurance and are asked to put ourselves in danger to offer a semblance of normalcy. While the pandemic continues, we ask that these measures are put in place to aid in keeping all involved safe.”

The staff of approximately 20 people demanded mandatory temperature checks for staff; a front-of-house manager who can stymie the flow of guests to ensure social distancing and sanitized tables chairs and pens; and for the dining room to shut down to the public at 4 p.m., switching to takeout orders only. Also included in the staff’s demands is a pay raise to $15 an hour for back-of-house employees during the pandemic, and management must create an extra shift for sanitation work.

“We would like to have a definitive plan of action as to what the restaurant will do if a member of staff tests positive for COVID,” Strike said. “We would like to close down for 14 days, testing for employees and a thorough sanitation before returning to work.”

Although the restaurant, which is a music-themed Mexican food establishment, reopened May 1, the money is not worth the risks, Strike said.

“We want the safety we were promised,” Krissee Grosso said. Grosso has worked as a server at Vinyl Taco for nearly two years. “We don’t want to jeopardize the lives of our families, and some of my family is immuno-compromised.”

“What we’re worried about is spreading anything to other people,” Strike said. “All this made me feel like I was lied to by upper management. Promises of a manager at the front making sure customers comply has not happened. It’s been an absolute struggle every night.”

Kevin Nelson, Vinyl Taco’s general manager, declined to comment on the particulars saying the walkout was the “first I heard of it. You’re breaking news to me I don’t even know, and when I do, I won’t have a comment for you.”

He referred all information to Global Development, which led to Randy Thorson, who is the registered agent for Vinyl Taco, Inc., according to the North Dakota Secretary of State.

“We’re following North Dakota state guidelines, and we have put several others in place to protect them even more, that’s all we can do,” Nelson added.

A message left with Thorson early Saturday morning has not been answered.

Michael Strike shows the face coverings issued by management for Vinyl Taco, which he believes are unsafe. C.S. Hagen / The Forum
Michael Strike shows the face coverings issued by management for Vinyl Taco, which he believes are unsafe. C.S. Hagen / The Forum

Some of the safety promises staff say never materialized are included in their demands. They were also promised face coverings, Strike said, but some staff have been making their own homemade face coverings. The masks provided by management are worthless, Strike said.

“They probably just took old T-shirts they got back and made them into masks,” Strike said. “The masks are so thin they’re basically see through when you stretch them over your face.”

Other issues Strike, Grosso and other employees have are that most customers do not wear masks, tables aren’t being cleaned after customers leave and the staff is feeling overworked, but also worried that they’ll lose their jobs if they ask for personal time.

Upper management told staff that “80% of North Dakota has already had the coronavirus and those people have antibodies to help stop the spread any further” and that the continued increase in “coronavirus cases was only due to an increase in testing, not actually an increase in cases,” Strike said.

Both are statements he and others disagree with.

Strike also said many feel pressured into staying because management told them they will be reported to the state if they decide not to work because of coronavirus worries, and they’ll lose the extra $600 in benefits.

“I find it a distasteful means of encouraging your workforce to come back to you,” Strike said. “I know it’s a business … but if Vinyl Taco family doesn’t feel safe coming back to work, I really hope you don’t feel pressured into coming back to work before you want to.”

Their concern is valid, according to Bryan Klipfel, the director of North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance, who during an April 30 Chamber of Commerce business briefing said employers can report their employees for not returning to work.

"What if my employees refuse to come back to work? Well, if you have work and you need your employees to come back to their jobs, they should return, or must return,” Klipfel said, noting that a specific Job Service North Dakota number had been set up for employers having trouble getting employees to return to work.

Valid concerns related to COVID-19 are taken into consideration, Klipfel said in an April 30 interview.

Klipfel also said that if an employee or a self-employed person decides that they cannot go back to work because of valid COVID-19 concerns, then the unemployment benefit checks will continue until the end of December, and the extra $600 per week through the federal CARES Act will continue through July.

One of the biggest reasons the staff walked out in protest Saturday is because they said they were also told by management that the state will cover all hospital costs related to COVID-19.

The state has never said recovery and hospital costs will be free, but has said testing is free to the public.