Knoxville restaurant workers quit, saying guidelines weren’t being followed

Coronavirus

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE)- After bartending at the Turkey Creek Calhoun’s for 7 years, Diandra Heck quit her job.

She didn’t have a backup job, nor did she want to quit, but she felt that for her safety, quitting was the only option.

Similar to many other restaurant employees, Heck was temporarily laid off in March when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Heck said she got a call a few days before restaurants were allowed to reopen, asking if she could come back to work to cover the bar.

“I thought it was a little too soon to come in so I asked to come in two weeks later, because I felt more comfortable that way, since it was too soon. And they said that was okay. Then the next day they called me back and they’re like, ‘Oh well, we need you because we don’t have enough bartenders,'” Heck said.

Heck said she has chronic asthma, which is one of the underlying conditions the CDC warns can have a high risk of complications from COVID-19.

“I have chronic asthma. Like, the past two months has been terrible for me. Especially because, living in Tennessee, you know, the pollen just makes it 10 times worse. I’ve gone through like two inhalers,” Heck said.

She said she felt she had no choice but to agree to go back to work, because she didn’t think she would be able to collect unemployment.

Heck said it seemed as if her restaurant was following most of the guidelines.

Tables were spaced out, employees wore masks and gloves, guests had to wait outside to be seated in the dining room, etc.

There were a couple of guidelines she said the restaurant never followed.

“When we get in there we’re supposed to sign this chart saying like our temperature has been taken, and nobody ever took our temperature. Any of the times that we signed in all those shifts,” Heck said.

Then after about a week, Heck said the restaurant relaxed some of the guidelines.

“It was like one weekend where there was nobody sitting at the bar, and then the next week, a manager would come up to me and say, ‘Oh you know we’re serving people at the bar?’ And I said, ‘I don’t feel comfortable with that,'” Heck said.

She said she told managers that allowing guests at the bar wasn’t part of the Phase 1 guidelines, and she reminded them of her chronic asthma.

She said that maybe for one shift, management agreed to not sit anyone at the bar, but it switched back the next day.

Heck said that as soon as she arrived for her shift on May 17, she was taken into a separate room and was given three options: continue serving customers at the bar, start serving tables, or leave.

“I’m not a server. I told her, ‘I’m a bartender. I’ve worked hard to get my spot, I’ve been bartending here for the longest, and going to serving, there’s one or two servers that already have shifts that they’re taking. So, how am I going to get one of those shifts,” Heck asked.

Heck chose to leave. Her decision helped a manager make a similar choice.

Crystal Hong started working at the Calhoun’s in Oak Ridge in mid-February as a manager in training, just before the pandemic hit.

Soon she learned what she thought had to be done in order to make ends meet during a pandemic.

“We had to lay off our entire hourly staff and so the only people working were essentially salaried managers. So I was pretty much thrown into the wolves, if you will, and kind of had to learn a lot of things on my own,” Hong said.

Hong was transferred to the Calhoun’s on the River in downtown Knoxville on May 8.

She soon saw that that location was also not following the Phase 1 guidelines, especially after Mother’s Day.

“You started to see chairs at the bar when you’re not supposed to have them there, and then you started to see them open up more tables to accommodate more guests. So now the tables aren’t six feet apart. You know, that’s kind of when things started to relax a little bit,” Hong.

After reading Heck’s post on Facebook, Hong decided that was her last straw.

As a manager, she knew that even though some employees were afraid or concerned to return to work, they were essentially forced to return.

“They were told, you know, ‘If you don’t come back when we tell you to come back, then, you know, we will turn you in as terminated and then you won’t be able to collect unemployment,'” Hong said.

A few days before sending in her letter of resignation, Hong reported Calhoun’s on the River to the Knox County Health Department.

As of May 19, KCHD received 208 complaints of businesses in the county not following the guidelines since May 1.

KCHD staff said that 26 of those 208 complaints were from a Copper Cellar Family Restaurant.

The health department wasn’t the only group of people receiving complaints about Copper Cellar restaurants.

The Knoxville Service Industry United group, which was formed after the COVID-19, also received several complaints.

Jade Cunningham, co-founder of the group, said she receives dozens of complaints daily from large chain employees and small mom-and-pop shops.

Most of the complaints revolved around restaurants not following the social distancing rules.

“I received more messages from people under the Copper Cellar umbrella than probably anything else. And from what I understand, it’s just a matter of opinion, that that group feels like they don’t have to adhere to the guidelines,” Cunningham said.

6 On Your Side reached out to Copper Cellar restaurants for comment.

Bart Fricks, Chief Operating Officer for Copper Cellar Family of Restaurants, said Copper Cellar’s company policy prohibits commenting publicly on personnel issues.

From the beginning of the pandemic, Copper Cellar Family of Restaurants has followed and adhered to all recommendations and requirements from the State of Tennessee. Because Copper Cellar operates 20 restaurants in five counties and six cities, the company has also endeavored to abide by the variety of ever-changing requirements and guidelines from the numerous cities and counties it operates in.

Copper Cellar Family of Restaurants

In full disclosure, 6 On Your Side visited the Turkey Creek Calhoun’s Tuesday afternoon. The reporter did not see anyone sitting at the bar at the time, tables seemed to have been spread apart and employees were wearing masks.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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