Restaurant Servers Seek Back Pay - Oct 29, 2012

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Written by Administrator
Monday, 29 October 2012 00:00

Thousands of current and former servers employed by Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse and The Capital Grill are suing the parent company, Darden Restaurant Inc., claiming they were paid below minimum wage and that the company owes them back pay and other compensation, plus interest and attorney's fees. The lawsuit was filed in September in Miami federal court and, if successful, could result in Darden having to pay out tens of millions of dollars in restitution; but more importantly, it could spark a new nationwide debate on what constitutes unacceptable labor practices and how high (or low) our level of tolerance should be for such behavior.

 In the case of Darden Inc., the lawsuit alleges the following:

Servers showed up for shifts as scheduled but were not allowed to clock in until customers began arriving. Some were also forced to clock out and continue working without pay.

Employees who worked beyond 40 hours a week were not paid 1.5 times their regular pay as required.

Tipped employees refilled salt shakers, rolled silverware in napkins and vacuumed for more than 20 percent of their work time. Such "side work" beyond 20 percent for tipped employees entitles them to at least the minimum wage, which those employees otherwise do not usually get.

This is not the first time that Darden Inc. has been investigated for violating labor laws. In 2011, the Department of Labor found the company guilty of labor violation related to Olive Garden workers in Mesquite, Texas. The workers there received more than $25,000 in back wages, and the company was fined $30,800. That same year, a separate investigation resulted in Darden being required to pay more than $27,000 in back pay to Red Lobster workers in Lubbock, Texas. Again, Darden was fined, this time around $24,000.

What is interesting about this latest lawsuit is that it is an attempt to collectively seek restitution on behalf of a large number of employees, both past and current, who were working in not one, but four, different eateries belonging to the parent company.

The restaurant business is not the only industry that has been accused by its employees of violating federal and state labor laws. Similar lawsuits have been filed agains publishers and newspapers for taking unfair advantage of unpaid interns who performed substantial work to the benefit of the employer. One recent lawsuit was filed against the Hearst Corporation, owner of Harper's Bazaar. The lawsuit alleges that, among other things, Hearst had interns work as much as 55 hours a week without compensation.

Unpaid internships have been on the rise since the 1990s. Today, it is common practice for college students to work for corporations as a means of gaining experience. But is it really fair of corporations to take advantage of the labor of college students without pay?

As for the Florida servers who reported to work expecting to perform tipped services for which they were hired, but ended up spending more than 20 percent of their time doing untipped “side work,” this hardly sounds fair. It is a well-known fact that servers wages are generally lower than minimum wage because there is the understanding that a server's real earnings come from tips. It seems to me that if servers are flexible enough to do tasks outside of their main area of work, then management should also be flexible when it comes to pay.

All workers deserve, at the very least, the opportunity to earn minimum wage, and in the case of the Florida restaurant servers, being asked to do side work for wait-staff pay deprived these workers of that opportunity and reduced them, in effect, to working for a pittance.

Restaurants rely heavily on their reputation to get the kind of foot traffic they need to be profitable. I really can't see how being known as a repeat violator of labor laws can be a sound strategy for building a positive brand. At any rate, I expect to see more of these types of lawsuits in the future. 

Last Updated ( Thursday, 03 January 2013 14:00 )