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Former El Real Employees Plan More Protests Demanding Unpaid Wages [Updated]

A local activist group has launched a GoFundMe to help employees facing rent and other bills as they wait for paychecks

The neon marquee at El Real
Philip Lange / Shutterstock.com

Hours after the closure of Montrose Tex-Mex restaurant El Real was announced — and its former employees protested in front of the restaurant demanding unpaid wages — a GoFundMe account is now raising funds for those impacted by the sudden shutter.

The GoFundMe fundraiser, organized by members of Houston’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter, launched late Monday night in an attempt to help affected employees pay their bills as they await their final paychecks from El Real. “This is the end of the month, and rent and bills are due this week,” the fundraiser’s description reads. “At least one worker is pregnant, many have children, and many live paycheck to paycheck. Workers at El Real need anything you can give to help as they demand that Bryan Caswell pay them.”

As Eater reported yesterday, several former El Real workers have alleged bounced paychecks and missed payments in the months leading up to the restaurant’s sudden shutter. Some of those former employees incurred fees from their banks related to the bounced checks, while others told Eater that they were owed hundreds of dollars and that the restaurant wasn’t able to pay vendors for key ingredients like tomatoes in its final days.

A spokesperson from the Houston DSA chapter tells Eater that it has been organizing workers impacted by the closure, who plan to protest out in front of Reef again on Tuesday morning. The group has also encouraged workers and their supporters to tweet their personal stories at public officials and Caswell himself using the hashtag #CaswellPayUsNow. Scope out some of those stories below:

On Tuesday afternoon, a former El Real employee addressed the Houston City Council and Mayor Sylvester Turner directly. According to a source who attended the meeting, Mayor Turner thanked the employee for “standing up for all of the workers” and noted that his office would reach out to see what it could do to “mediate” the issue.

Video of the meeting posted to Houston Television’s website shows former El Real employee Evelyn Barrios explaining the situation to the Council and Turner. “About 50 people have not paid. We call him, he dodges our calls. His checks have been bouncing for over three months,” she says.” “You have people who have not been paid for two pay periods, three, a whole month. We put our checks in the bank account, they bounce, we get the charge and no money.”

In her public comment, Barrios said that she chose to speak up for her coworkers because some were too scared to protest based on their legal status. She also said that Caswell threatened her with legal action if she posted anything negative about his restaurants on social media. “This is how the rich stay richer and the poor stay poor,” Barrios said. “He knows that I have no money for a lawyer, he knows I’m a minority.”

In response to Barrios’s comment, Turner expressed both sympathy for the employees and an intention to reach out to Caswell for a resolution. “Let me thank you for standing up, not only for yourself, but for the others as well. Let us reach out and see what we can to do encourage him to pay all of his employees what he owes them,” Turner said. “Right is right, and you certainly are entitled based on what you’re saying to us to your pay. Let us reach out and see if we can mediate this situation.” Council member Jack Christie echoed Turner’s sympathy, and encouraged Barrios and other affected employees to seek out pro-bono legal representation.

Owner Bryan Caswell has provided conflicting statements to Houston media outlets about the payments after news of the allegations broke. First, he told the Houston Chronicle that the restaurant had “no back pay issues,” then told ABC13’s Miya Shay that he plans to send all affected employees their unpaid wages by the end of the week. On Monday, a rep for Caswell declined to provide answers to specific questions from Eater about the allegations from his former employees. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the former staffers that spoke to Eater are skeptical that those checks will ever arrive.

Another resource available to impacted El Real employees is chef Chris Shepherd’s Southern Smoke Foundation’s Emergency Relief Fund, which provides financial assistance to service industry professionals in times of crisis. They’ve got real experience in handling these issues, too — in October alone, the organization’s website boasts that it has distributed more than $48,000 in direct cash grants to service industry professionals in need via its Emergency Relief Fund, and in 2017, handed out more than $500,000 to businesses and individuals impacted by Hurricane Harvey.

As of press time, the GoFundMe for El Real employees has not yet reached its initial goal of $4,000 in donations. Stay tuned for updates.

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