Content warning: This article contains mention of sexual harassment and assault.
Several former workers at IZA Whiskey & Eats, a popular Carrboro restaurant, have brought forward allegations of employee mistreatment and negligence against Yung Nay, its owner and founder.
They claim Nay poorly handled sexual harassment in the workplace and failed to fairly compensate back-of-house employees.
An email statement from Nay's attorney, Christopher Gamber, on behalf of Nay and the restaurant, said IZA Whiskey & Eats takes these concerns seriously and will "evaluate its current procedures and practices" to improve the experience for staff and customers alike.
This isn't the first time Chapel Hill restaurant owners have received allegations of workplace misconduct. Al Bowers, the former owner of Al's Burger Shack, faced sexual harassment allegations in January 2020, and Acme Food & Beverage Company workers went on strike for nearly three months due to claims of unfair labor practices and abuse of power.
Workplace assault allegations
Jennifer Burgess, a former server, host and eventual assistant to Nay, said she experienced sexual assault while working as a server at IZA Whiskey & Eats in early 2022.
She recalled being trapped behind a shelf in the kitchen during a late-night party at the restaurant as an intoxicated co-worker brought his hands to both sides of her face and hugged her.
When other employees and the restaurant manager intervened, Burgess said the worker touched her chest.
"As he pulls away, his hand goes all up my front section," she said.
After the manager left the kitchen, Burgess said the worker attempted to hug her again. After the incident, several of her co-workers said the worker who was responsible should have been fired, according to Burgess.
However, when the situation was brought to Nay, she said he facilitated an apology from the worker to Burgess and allowed him to continue working at the restaurant alongside her. Nay also implemented a "no drinking" policy for employees while on the clock, Burgess said.
In an email statement, Nay's attorney said Nay claimed Burgess told him she would "willingly continue working" with the back-of-house employee in order to avoid anyone's termination. The attorney added that Nay said Burgess and another bartender were both involved in over-serving the intoxicated worker.
Burgess said she did not want the worker to be fired because it would "ruin their life," although she said that other employees believed the decision of termination should not have been up to her.
She also said she was only employed as a server at the time and was not bar-trained, so she had no role in serving alcohol that night.
Nay was not in the restaurant at the time of the assault, but Burgess said the employee was clearly inebriated before Nay left.
Customers at the party were also intoxicated, leaving Burgess and her co-workers in an uncomfortable position, she said.
Several former employees at the restaurant said Nay had "VIP" customers, to whom he gave informal preferential treatment.
Nay's statement described these customers as frequent guests, family of employees or someone celebrating an anniversary or a birthday.
Former employees said that, on multiple occasions, some "VIP" customers made sexual remarks and advances toward women working as waitresses or bartenders.
Kelly Lin, a former server and hostess at IZA Whiskey & Eats, said she and other employees felt Nay dismissed their complaints.
She also said there was an expectation among servers to stand up for themselves if they were in situations that made them uncomfortable rather than go to Nay for help.
"He pulled me behind on my own and gave a speech of, 'You girls need to learn how to say that you're uncomfortable. Once you say that, they'll leave you alone; but, if I say anything to them, they won't come back,'" Burgess said.
Burgess said a male customer told another employee she was "looking skinny." When the employee told Nay, he said, "You know you like it when a man calls you skinny," according to Burgess.
Gamber said Nay has no recollection of this comment.
On another occasion in late 2021, Lin said a group of men, "VIPs" of the restaurant, struck up a conversation with her.
One of them later grabbed her arm and commented on how pretty her hands and nails were, she said.
This group of men, according to Burgess, was also asking a bartender about their tattoos and asked about the "tattoo they couldn't see." Burgess said she was working the same shift that night.
In an interview with The Daily Tar Heel, Nay said he tells his staff to pull him aside if they have any issues. Gamber said these situations were not brought to Nay.
"We always tell our server if there's any uncomfortable situation, they can always let us know so we can do something about it," Nay said.
A former employee, who wished to remain anonymous, also recalled Nay telling them to "pretty much just deal with it" when faced with various instances of guests making them uncomfortable.
"The way he treats men and women differently is pretty obvious," the former employee said. "He tends to prefer men, and, with women, he makes a lot of comments on their physical appearances."
The former employee added that these issues created an uncomfortable work environment and noted they think it contributed to a high staff turnover rate at the restaurant. They, along with several other employees, eventually quit their jobs at the restaurant in late 2022.
While working as his assistant, Burgess said Nay told her about a situation involving an online review that made claims of workplace abuse.
Nay was able to deduce that a friend of an employee had posted this review, according to Burgess. She said Nay told her that he confronted the employee and told them he would sue for defamation if the review was not taken down.
In a different instance when another employee quit, Nay told the employee that if they "said anything to anyone," they "wouldn't be able to work again," according to Burgess.
Gamber said Nay denies these allegations.
"However, from a legal standpoint, I would hope a business would go after anyone who makes false or outright lies which could harm a business, I am unsure what other recourse would a business truly have?" Gamber said on behalf of Nay in an email statement.
A former back-of-house worker, who requested to remain anonymous, said they noticed hours missing from their paycheck while employed at the restaurant.
These changes were negligible — about one or two hours — considering paychecks at the restaurant were distributed every two weeks, they said.
They also said that other employees working in the kitchen claimed to be experiencing similar issues with their hours being changed. They said this situation was eventually brought to Nay, who told them to check their hours.
In response to these allegations, Gamber, on behalf of Nay, said there were numerous occasions where an employee would not clock in or clock out properly. It was up to workers to let Nay know if there were any discrepancies in their paychecks, he said in the email.
Gamber said no situations involving issues with overtime pay were ever brought to Nay.
"It is difficult to address matters that are not known," Gamber said in an email statement.
The former back-of-house employee said they had saved paper receipts. The receipts, which were printed by a machine in the restaurant, recorded their hours for each shift. After comparing the recorded hours to the hours they were paid for, the former back-of-house employee said they found inconsistencies.
The Daily Tar Heel obtained the back-of-house employee's receipts and pay stub for a two-week pay period in April 2022. The receipts showed a total of 143.15 hours worked, and the employee's paystub showed that they were paid for 80 hours during those two weeks.
They said that Nay would pay them and other back-of-house employees cash for all hours worked after 80 hours in a two-week period. The back-of-house employee interviewed by the Daily Tar Heel said they did not receive time and one-half overtime pay.
The amount of cash paid would not always add up to the amount of money the back-of-house employee was owed for their total hours worked, the employee said.
In an email to The Daily Tar Heel, Nay said he only pays his workers in cash for tips through his catering business. He said that his workers are contracted as 1099 employees and "no shady stuff" is happening at the restaurant.
A former employee said they had worked as a supervisor at IZA Whiskey & Eats. They said back-of-house workers were generally paid overtime in cash, while front-of-house employees were usually not paid in cash.
The federal Fair Labor Standards Act says employers are responsible for keeping records of an employee's hours worked each day and each week. The act also requires employers to pay employees for all of the hours they worked.
Other employees at IZA Whiskey & Eats described their experiences at the restaurant as positive overall.
Trey Dry, a former server and bartender at IZA Whiskey & Eats, said he had heard about Burgess' experience with sexual assault at the restaurant. He said that he felt as though Nay tried to handle the situation in the best way possible.
He added that he felt as though men and women were treated equally in the workplace as long as they attended shifts and worked hard. Dry said he never heard Nay mention litigation or comment on employees' appearances.
A current employee at the establishment, who wished to remain anonymous, said they had never had a bad experience during her employment at the location other than the occasional disgruntled restaurant customer.
"When you do step into that arena, you're gonna get people that might not be the easiest customer," they said. "At the end of the day, nothing really stuck out to me or, I don't know, they were putting money in my pocket so I didn't really care."
They added that, while they don't remember Nay commenting on workers' appearances, the restaurant did have a dress code that some employees would occasionally not follow, which would warrant a response from Nay.
"I would just say my experience with it is my experience," Dry said. "My experience with Yung is that he was always willing to help somebody if they went to him and asked him. He was always like that with me — I'd seen him be like that with other people."
Beyond IZA Whiskey & Eats
Burgess described the situation at IZA Whiskey & Eats as a "microcosm" of what goes on in the rest of the country.
Lin said many workers in areas like Chapel Hill are students, minors or members of marginalized groups — people who often aren't in a position to speak up if they are wronged.
The issue extends beyond Nay and his business, Lin said, and there are individuals who perpetrate abusive workplace behaviors through their support of abusive business owners.
"They are people who have power in the community and they affect my potential school, they affect the businesses I go to and other people I know," she said. "Just the consequences and the situation goes a lot larger than just one specific place."
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