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Strom v. Fond Du Lac Management, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

June 17, 2013

Patricia Strom, Relator,
v.
Fond Du Lac Management, Inc., Black Bear Casino & Hotel, Respondent, Department of Employment and Economic Development, Respondent.

UNPUBLISHED OPINION

Department of Employment and Economic Development File No. 30057485-3.

Patricia Strom, Eveleth, Minnesota (pro se relator).

Fond Du Lac Management, Inc., Black Bear Casino & Hotel, Cloquet, Minnesota (respondent employer).

Lee B. Nelson, Department of Employment and Economic Development, St. Paul, Minnesota (for respondent department).

Considered and decided by Cleary, Presiding Judge; Johnson, Chief Judge; and Hooten, Judge.

HOOTEN, Judge

Relator challenges the determination of the unemployment law judge (ULJ) that she is ineligible for unemployment benefits because she quit her employment without good reason caused by her employer. Because substantial evidence sustains the ULJ's findings, we affirm.

FACTS

Relator Patricia Strom was employed at respondent Fond Du Lac Management, Inc., d/b/a Black Bear Casino and Hotel in Cloquet, Minnesota, as a sous chef in the casino buffet kitchen. Relator's responsibilities were to "ensur[e] the cleanliness of all kitchen areas, " "supervise the kitchen staff, " and "keep[] open lines of communications with other staff regarding the food quality." As part of this job, relator cooked approximately 20 different items, put the food on pans and warmers, and watched the other cooks and "lines out front" to ensure the food was "safe for the guests to eat." Relator's staff typically included two "runners" who put out the food, the prime rib carver, the "salad person, " and the "prep person in the back"—for a total of six persons working at the buffet.

The casino buffet served 500–1, 500 people each night between 5:30 and 9:00 p.m. Relator opined that "there should be at least nine to ten people" and that the buffet was "understaffed" when she was working with only four to six people. The buffet was comprised of different stations, for example, dessert, cold food, and a meat-carving station, and relator believed there needed to be "at least one person at every station." Sometimes the buffet was staffed with "up to nine, ten people in the back or in the kitchen putting out the meals for the . . . evening." But, on occasion, banquets serving up to 650 people would occur simultaneously in the convention center, which would occupy the same ovens and require some of the buffet staff. In addition, relator testified that problems arose because staff who called in sick would not be replaced and the buffet would operate shorthanded.

According to relator, her work load changed during the periods when she believed the buffet was understaffed. For example, the "runners" would have to cook and relator testified that it was hard for her to ensure the food they prepared was cooked correctly or at safe temperatures. Relator stated she could not watch the lines out front, but would have to cover other stations during breaks and for missing staff. These periods were a "mess" and "uncontrollable" because the staff was so busy, and "people were crashing into each other" and "burning themselves." Additionally, the wait staff was "constantly breaking dishes, " resulting in broken glass near the dessert station. Relator further testified that, because of this pace, staff would work in "a sloppy[, ] unsafe" manner, including not washing fruits and vegetables. Relator stated that customers would scream and yell because "nothing [was] getting done" as a result of understaffing. Relator believes that this combination caused a stressful and unsafe work environment.

Relator complained "many times" to her superiors, including the food and beverage director, that the buffet was inadequately staffed, but relator did not specifically state how many employees were needed to adequately staff the buffet. Relator testified that she was told by management that a request had been made to hire additional staff, but no additional staff was hired. As a result, relator quit her job without notice to her employer or supervisors because she "just couldn't do it anymore." Relator stated in her application for unemployment benefits that the continued understaffing of the buffet created unsafe working conditions.

Relator applied for unemployment benefits, and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) determined she was ineligible because she quit without a good reason caused by her employer. Relator appealed, and a telephonic hearing was held, during which the ULJ took relator's testimony. No one from Fond Du Lac participated. Following the hearing, the ULJ concluded that relator quit her employment without a good reason ...


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