WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — Bitty & Beau’s has made a name for itself as a coffee shop that provides jobs for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Amy Wright, whose two children have Down syndrome, started the business a year and a half ago.
“When we opened the business we were doing everything we thought was right… trying to give people with a disability a job,” said Amy Wright, owner of Bitty & Beau’s.
But she admits she made a mistake, which resulted in a U.S. Department of Labor complaint. When Bitty & Beau’s opened in January 2016, potential employees began as unpaid interns for six weeks. Wright said she had seen internship programs work well in other businesses and wanted to use this as a way to test the waters as a softer approach to helping people who have never had jobs before.
“What we couldn’t do, what we didn’t know, is that we couldn’t have interns run credit cards because of Interstate Commerce laws,” Wright said.
Six interns ran credit cards.
According to a statement from Michael D’Aquino with the U.S. Department of Labor, “This wage and hour compliance action resulted in six workers receiving more than $2,200 in back wages to compensate them for time they spent in training without being paid. The back wages have been paid, and the employer has agreed to comply with the law in the future.”
Wright says as soon as she learned it was an issue, she went home and paid those six interns their back wages. She says even though she wasn’t required to, she also spent more than $10,000 paying all the other previous interns.
“We didn’t want anyone else to feel less valuable,” Wright explained. “Didn’t want them to feel like their jobs didn’t matter.”
Wright says they last hired interns nearly a year ago, when Bitty & Beau’s moved to its new location in July. This investigation wrapped up two months ago.
“It upset me so much,” said Ben Wright, Amy’s husband. “She could have created the coffee shop under auspices of a ‘sheltered workshop’… but we wouldn’t do that in a million years.”
Ben Wright says sheltered workshops allow businesses to hire people with intellectual disabilities and pay them a sub-minimum wage. Instead, Wright says his wife has paid above minimum wage plus tips.
The Wrights say they are trying to change the world for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and simply made a mistake when it came to interns.
Amy Wright says the U.S. Department of Labor did not penalize them, it was determined this was not done willingly and was simply an oversight.
“A learning curve kind of thing,” she said.
Amy Wright says they haven’t hired interns since July and in the future, they will no longer do an internship program.