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Amelie's highlights N.C.'s right-to-work issues 

In a state that often tramples on low-wage workers, employers must be extra vigilant to protect their rights

When news of Patrick Cannon's arrest broke last Wednesday, I assumed the folks at Amelie's French Bakery were breathing a sigh of relief. For days, the business had been under the microscope of the Charlotte public and media for accusations of wage improprieties after former employee Justin Miller released a public resignation letter detailing alleged labor-law violations. I thought Amelie's would retreat into the shadows of Cannon's misdeeds.

To its credit, Amelie's did not. The bakery inserted itself back into the news cycle on Thursday by a third public statement regarding Miller's accusations and how the organization was handling the situation internally.

It stressed its commitment to discovering any wrongdoing on its part, and to making it right. Judging by comments on the bakery's Facebook page and a Change.org petition, its customers will accept nothing less. They are upset.

North Carolina has a bad reputation for its treatment of low-wage workers. In a right-to-work state with no real unions, no earned income credit, no way to ensure employers obtain worker's compensation insurance, and a labor commissioner who has called for the abolishment of minimum wage, very few protections exist for employees. Even the ones that do exist are sometimes never enforced. Miller sent a complaint to the N.C. Department of Labor about Amelie's that was never acted on, and he claims to have made another complaint with the state before giving up and contacting the U.S. Department of Labor instead, which is looking into the matter.

Despite the embarrassing tendencies of our state, Amelie's was possibly the last place you'd expect to operate under a less-than-socially responsible set of ideals. It was a cool, funky place perched in the middle of one of Charlotte's most spirited communities. It had a modern, eclectic sense of style and social-media savvy. It was a place people showed off to out-of-town visitors with pride and national media wrote about when they visited as being one of the coolest (or "weirdest") places in North Carolina. It was a haven for Charlotte's creative class. During the DNC, Occupy protesters met in its atrium, enjoying twice-baked croissants as they painted signs for workers' rights.

Owner Lynn St. Laurent spoke at the White House as an exemplary employer and advocate for progressive hiring practices. (Amelie's hires employees with records, referred to the bakery through a local nonprofit.) To discover these progressive hiring practices may really just be a way to exploit workers who don't know their rights or are too afraid to stand up for them was a shock, to put it mildly.

When I interviewed St. Laurent, she had reasonable explanations for some of the incidents detailed in Miller's letter. For instance, she said the worker whom Miller claimed was forced to work a 24-hour shift, which included working at her own house off the clock, had actually volunteered to help her move and was being paid "handsomely" to do so. St. Laurent was shocked and upset to learn he had come there after working third shift the night before, and his shift in Amelie's production kitchen later that evening was cancelled.

But some accusations had legs. When I interviewed her, she told me that Amelie's had a practice called "cross-utilization" that didn't pay employees overtime when they worked more than 40 hours if those 40 hours were in two different positions. Though she believed this to be perfectly legal, it's not. She also admitted to not knowing whether worker's rights posters were on display for her employees, which is required by law. She said she relied on management to handle day-to-day duties such as these, and to understand the nuances and guidelines of labor laws.

When I spoke to St. Laurent, I felt sympathy for her. At one point during our conversation, she was moved to tears. She obviously cared about her employees and her reputation in the community. The problem seemed to be that she didn't understand the legalities of her employment practices.

When you are responsible for people's livelihood, you don't have the luxury of ignorance. It is your duty to be involved in your organization every day and know your workers are being treated fairly. You can't just take someone's word for it, no matter how much you trust them. It is your duty to understand labor laws. If this is too daunting a task, then so is being an employer.

A consumer has responsibilities, too. How cool and progressive an establishment presents itself to be does not indicate how it does business. Before you champion any brand — community-based or otherwise — it's important to understand its labor practices. Money is power. Give yours to businesses that reflect your values.

Read Erin's story about Amelie's "wage improprieties."

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