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In this photo from August, 2017, customers sit at windowside tables at Folklore Coffee Co. on the Square in Elizabethtown.

After the owner of an Elizabethtown coffee shop created controversy with a recent social media post about face masks, some former employees have come forward to say he withheld pay for work performed before they were laid off because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a wage complaint filed March 25 to the state Department of Labor and Industry, Taylor Eldredge, 23, said the owner of Folklore Coffee & Co. owed her more than $1,200 for three weeks of work in March.

Owner Ryan Bracken did not respond to repeated phone messages or messages left with employees at his coffee shop. An employee said Thursday he was unavailable and he also did not respond to notes left at two addresses associated with him.

Folklore Coffee and Bracken were in the news earlier this month when he issued a statement saying his employees would wear masks under protest but he would not enforce customers to wear masks in the shop.

In online discussions about the mask policy, employees began to post about their experiences.

Former barista and manager Eldredge was one of those who posted online and filed a complaint with the state.

The Department of Labor and Industry did not respond to a request for comment on Eldredge’s wage complaint, but the former manager shared the documents with LNP|LancasterOnline.

‘No funds’

Eldredge told the labor department that Bracken informed employees there were “no funds” and they should not deposit their checks. Her complaint also said “Employer has also asked employees to work for free because of earning no money during the coronavirus crisis. A female minor is working for no pay, and the employer is a registered sex offender still on parole.”

Bracken pleaded guilty to two counts of indecent assault in March 2015 for groping a 21-year-old employee who was passed out at an after-hours party at the shop in February 2014. He was sentenced to probation for five years and had to register as a Megan’s Law sex offender. He admitted in 2016 to violating one of his probation conditions by viewing pornography, according to court records.

Another probation condition stipulates that he cannot have unsupervised interaction with minors.

Eldredge also provided screenshots of messages Bracken sent to employees. One of them, dated March 20, said “Folklore is making very little money at this time. If you have any back checks do not deposit them if at all possible.”

Former employee Bailee Vink, 23, said she filed a complaint with the labor department, but hasn’t heard back. Vink said in her complaint that she wasn’t paid for three weeks of work — about $750.

“I wasn't able to pay my rent or electric due to that,” said Vink, adding she had to find other part time work to be able to afford groceries.

She said Bracken had asked her to volunteer at the shop but she said she couldn't work without pay and it would affect her unemployment.

Eldredge said she was working when she received a group chat message about volunteering. She said she walked out, refusing to work for no pay.

Longtime employee Nathanael Lehman, 23, said he was one of the few employees who was able to receive partial payment following Bracken’s statement in March that he would have to withhold pay.

Lehman said he had to fall back on his savings to pay for rent and to afford groceries.

“I was actually one of the few employees that occasionally he would say ‘yeah, like you can cash one of your checks, or you can cash, like, you know, only a limited amount,’” said Lehman. “He would never give me all the money at once."

In late April, Bracken paid all employees their missing payments, Eldredge said.

Financial assistance

County records show Folklore was recommended on July 1 to receive $35,000 through an economic relief plan implemented by the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County and the Lancaster Chamber. The two groups were tapped by the Lancaster County Commissioners to distribute federal coronavirus money to small businesses in the county.

The small business grants, of up to $35,000, can be used by businesses for costs such as payroll, rent/mortgages, supplies, other operating expenses and to retrofit facilities to meet public health requirements.