Like many in the dining industry, employees at Bruce Carey's well-established Portland restaurants, like Bluehour and Clarklewis, learned last week they would be out of a job due to the statewide closure of bars and dining rooms to slow the coronavirus pandemic.

But that blow came with another startling notice: They wouldn't be paid in full.

According to letters signed by Carey that were forwarded to WW, the longtime Portland restaurateur is withholding a quarter of the staff's final checks. He plans to pay up once the businesses are running again.

Carey did not respond to several requests for comment.

When asked about the legality of the pay deferral, the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries confirmed that Carey's restaurant group was not fulfilling its legal obligations.

"Paying only part of what workers are owed when they are laid off is a violation of Oregon law," says Jenny Smith, BOLI's communication director.

The state requires employers to pay workers in full following layoffs, even if there is a reasonable expectation they will eventually return to their positions. If it's not expected they will go back to work at the same company within 35 days, all wages earned are due at the next regularly scheduled payday.

So far, WW has received copies of the letter sent to former employees at Bluehour, Clarklewis and Saucebox. (Northwest Portland's 23Hoyt is also in Carey's restaurant portfolio.)

The letter reads as follows:

“You will notice that your last paycheck shows incomplete compensation. We went to great lengths to tap all possible resources, but without any sales this week we came up short and are forced to defer 25% of your compensation until the restaurant reopens. This is an unavoidable and unprecedented situation we find ourselves in. The circumstances are out of our control. It’s painful, but we hope you know that we really are doing the best we can to take care of as many affected people as possible while always placing you in first position.”

One laid-off employee, who wished to remain anonymous, says they learned of the missing pay from a co-worker just before collecting their final check.

"There were a bunch of employees from the different restaurants gathered around in the parking lot [at Clarklewis], like a feedlot, all talking about what was happening," they said. "My first thought was, 'We don't even know if we're going to reopen, or how long this will last, so is anyone calling a lawyer?' It's created fear, because we don't know what's going to happen from one day to the next."

Smith says workers can file claims for unpaid wages with BOLI.

"Even if companies go out of business," she says, "and they're not just on pause, there is a wage security fund available that folks can apply to access that provides wages to workers who've lost income."