Former flow Coffee Shop Employee Claims Owner Altered Documents, Shortchanged Wages

Kay Ratliff has documents that she says show pay discrepancies, but flow owner Rhys Watkins says he's done no wrong.

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click to enlarge Former flow employee Kay Ratliff says her time card (left) and pay stub (right) for Jan. 16-22, 2023, show discrepancies in hours worked due to coffee shop owner Rhys Watkins' alleged interference. - Screenshots: Provided by Kay Ratliff
Screenshots: Provided by Kay Ratliff
Former flow employee Kay Ratliff says her time card (left) and pay stub (right) for Jan. 16-22, 2023, show discrepancies in hours worked due to coffee shop owner Rhys Watkins' alleged interference.

A former employee of a local coffee shop is raising questions about the business owner’s ethics.

In a CityBeat interview and in a recent Reddit post, Kay Ratliff, who had been an hourly employee at flow (stylized in lowercase letters), alleged that owner Rhys Watkins had altered her paychecks, provided no overtime pay and required unpaid training periods.

But after denying the allegations, Watkins told CityBeat that Ratliff’s claims have affected his business, saying that since early January, he’s been forced to close all flow locations except for the original in Newport. He also closed Full of Bologna, his Newport deli, he said.

Watkins opened flow coffee shop in Newport in February 2022, promoting his “scientific coffee” and unique coffee extraction method. The brand added two locations – in Liberty Exhibition Hall in Northside and in OTR StillHouse in Over-the-Rhine – within the first year of opening the original.

Ratliff’s claims

Ratliff told CityBeat that Watkins repeatedly altered her pay stubs to reflect fewer hours than what she worked and did not pay her or any other employee for training. Ratliff said she quit flow in January and has since consulted an attorney and filed a complaint with both the state and federal departments of labor.

Ratliff, who made $12.50 per hour at the coffee shop, posted publicly on Reddit and detailed her complaints.

“After the first two weeks, I had asked [Watkins] about a paycheck, and he said that I was still in the training period and that you don't get paid for training,” Ratliff said. “And I was like, ‘Okay, I don't get back pay or anything?’ And he was like, ‘Nope, not for training.’”

Ratliff began working at flow in September and said she resigned on Jan. 30 because she was consistently not compensated correctly or for overtime. She added that her combined regular and overtime work sometimes amounted to 60 hours a week.

Ratliff said that flow uses the payment platform Square to record employee time and compensation. She provided documents to CityBeat that recorded her hours and compensation between Jan. 16 and Jan. 22. Ratliff’s time card tracked when she clocked in and out, while her pay stub showed what she was officially paid.

Those documents revealed discrepancies, CityBeat found. Ratliff’s Jan. 16-22 time card reflected 52.10 regular hours, but her pay stub showed 40 regular hours. CityBeat’s review of Ratliff’s records for other weeks showed additional errors

“[Watkins] did it all in Square,” Ratliff told CityBeat. “So you clock in and out on Square. So it'll track your hours, your pay stubs and everything like that. It'll show me how many hours I worked that week and what I'm owed because of the hours based on my $12.50 an hour pay, and then he'll send me my pay stub, because he pays you weekly.”

“So I'll get my pay stub, and then it's $300-$400 less than what my timecard shows. It's very clear, he alters the pay,” Ratliff continued. “And he claims he doesn't do it, but it's very obvious that he does. And even the lawyer was saying that. He was like, ‘Oh, yeah, he very clearly is changing the pay on everybody's pay periods.’”

Watkins disputed Ratliff’s claim in a conversation with CityBeat.

“We have never altered pay cards,” Watkins said. “We have never changed clock-in information. We have never done that. That is not something that I do. The hours that are clocked from an employee are logged automatically when they clock in and out. The only time an employee has not been paid overtime is when they have been in a salaried, overtime-exempt position that was agreed upon with the employee before they started working those hours.”

Ratliff said that an attorney at Finney Law Firm advised her to file a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor and to continue to make her claims public. She said that the lawyer advised against a lawsuit, though.

“The problem is with this situation, there's a likelihood that [Watkins] can just flee,” Ratliff said. “[The lawyer] said that he's currently on two different cases where someone sued a business owner for similar issues and they fled and nobody's getting any of their money.”

Ratliff said that she is more concerned with stopping Watkins’ alleged actions from recurring than with receiving money.

“I just really don't want him to hurt anybody else,” Ratliff said.

Watkins’ response

Watkins reacted to Ratliff’s Reddit post and accusations in an interview with CityBeat.

“I work extremely hard to make sure that any issues any employees have, that have worked for me in the past, are taken care of as soon as they're brought to my attention,” Watkins said. “And I am sorry, to anyone who ever feels that actions that I've taken in any way wronged them were misguided. It was never my intent in any way possible. I am looking at this information, I am working on myself, my approach and my execution of working with my employees working in my business, and it has never been my intent to ever hurt or offend.”

Watkins lives in and owns the building that flow inhabits in Newport. He also rents a storefront there to plant and vintage retailer Fleurish Grounds, which operates as a separate entity.

Brittany Hale, the co-owner of Fleurish Grounds, told CityBeat that foot traffic has been slow since Ratliff made her allegations public. The building was vandalized Feb. 7, and “Be better” was written in graffiti on the side of the building, Hale said.

Since Ratliff’s resignation, Watkins is the only worker at flow, he said. He added that he is working to keep the Newport location open, but backlash online and physical damage to his property are interfering with his work.

“I would like to inform you that the situation has gotten entirely out of hand, as my building where we live was vandalized yesterday evening,” Watkins said in a Feb. 8 email to CityBeat. “My fiancée and I feel unsafe in our own home and going out in public with the claims made against us and comments online turned now into physical action. This situation has completely destroyed our lives, which we have worked tirelessly to build.”

This is a developing story.

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