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Owner of Columbia's Miyo's restaurants faces backlash over treatment of employees

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M Vista Ginger Tofu Chow Fun

Ginger Tofu Chow Fun at M Vista

Michelle Wang, co-owner of the Midlands-based Miyo’s and other M restaurants, has come under fire on social media recently. The outcry was largely spurred by public complaints from one employee about how they and others have been treated, and Wang’s responses.

In a May 13 Facebook post, former worker Tessla Plitt shared messages between Wang and her employees, specifically highlighting Wang’s calls for them to come back to work or lose unemployment benefits as her restaurants reopened after closing due to COVID-19.

“I have a hot line with [an] SCDEW officer to defy any unemployment claims,” Wang wrote in one message to employees that Plitt included as a screenshot. Wang goes on to write that if employees don’t report back, she will consider them to be quitting.

Plitt — who last worked a shift for Wang in March, and now has no plans to return — also included screenshots of a back and forth between Wang and another employee asking about how the restaurants will ensure workers will get enough hours for them to subsist, with Wang refusing to “pay for your unemployment just because of your fear and your pregnancy condition.”

Free Times reached out to the worker in question, who declined to comment or publicly identify herself. Wang acknowledges that all the exchanges that Plitt revealed did occur.

The former employee’s post also showed that Wang, attempting to illustrate a point, shared an unemployment claim letter that included Plitt’s social security number in a group chat with other employees.

Initially, both parties confirm, Wang threatened Plitt with a lawsuit if she didn’t take down the post. Wang no longer plans to sue, saying that it isn’t in either of their best interests.

Plitt tells Free Times that she shared her experience online because she wanted it known to anyone deciding whether to support Wang’s businesses.

“I tried to think about it as much as I could and be thoughtful about what I said and just show that I still support my local businesses,” Plitt says. “Everyone’s been posting their stories and it’s been really great to hear them. It’s been good and bad stories, too, it’s not just bad — those experiences are really important to hear about.”

As of May 21, Plitt’s post had received more than 900 comments and nearly 400 reactions, and been shared more than 800 times.

The language and specific circumstances notwithstanding, Wang pressuring employees to return to work essentially mirrors the guidance provided by the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce. The department has help pages on its website detailing that employers should report workers who decline offers to return to employment.

Wang has offered many social media responses to Plitt’s post and the criticisms that have followed it, in somes cases offering $50 gift cards to encourage detractors to see and experience her restaurants.

On May 19, she posted a wide-ranging, 2,300-word open letter which includes many of the points made in her previous posts, among other things.

“People who have falsely filed unemployment benefits ... please repent and return the checks to the agency ASAP to avoid further penalty and legal punishment,” Wang writes. “Because your action was illegal and you are taking advantage of the chaotic situation of SCDEW, you are stealing the money from others who are older, weaker and sicker than you, who are forced out of [their jobs] and who truly need that financial assistance from the government.”

“People may wonder why I am so passionate about these things, why don’t I just let it slip by,” the letter continues. “I am passionate because we are in [a pandemic], as much as I personally do not fear this virus, there are people dying and suffering every day — most of them are devastated, they need the government assistance and people’s attention!”

The post also includes passages requesting, “Please do not call me ‘[Kanye] West of Columbia’, I do not know him well .... will have to learn of him and learn from him,” and responding to “someone [who] said something about me beating my oldest son, yes, I did that with love and discipline when he lied and stole from us in his teenager year, when he was addicted to computer games,” adding that she feels it helped instill him with a strong work ethic.

Wang tells Free Times she shared the unemployment letter to make a point and “scare” her employees into returning to work, but that she regrets the way she handled it and her recent approach to staff communication in general. She also acknowledges that posting Plitt’s personal information was a mistake on her part and says she has apologized for that in text messages.

“I was quick to anger, I was very stressed about getting people to work. … I was frustrated,” she says. “The language was very strong. I was trying to scare [them].”

Talking to Free Times, Wang, as she has via social media, defends her harsh approach to rehiring her workers. She says she wants only those who need to be receiving unemployment benefits to get them, not those who are, in her mind, taking advantage of it.

“I’m tough to [my employees] because that’s my love to them,” Wang explains. “They need values and a work ethic.”

Her social media posts go against the advice of her lawyer and the public relations consultants she’s reached out to, she adds.

“Why shouldn’t I respond to them?” Wang posits. “It gives me an opportunity to express myself.”

David Clarey joined Free Times in November 2019 as a food and news writer. He's constantly fighting competing desires to try cooking food at home and spending his entire paycheck on Columbia restaurants.

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