The lawsuit filed last week in Miami alleges that Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, Inc. violated federal labor laws by underpaying thousands of servers at their establishments across the country including Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Red Lobster and Capital Grille restaurants.
The complaint charges that: servers showed up for shifts as scheduled but were not allowed to clock in until customers began arriving and some were forced to clock out and continue working without pay; employees who worked more than 40 hours per week were not paid an overtime rate; and tipped employees performed “side work” duties more than 20 percent of their work time such as filling salt shakers, rolling silverware in napkins and vacuuming without receiving at least minimum wage as they were entitled to.
According to lead lawyer, David Lichter, “Darden has a company-wide pattern and practice of paying its employees below minimum wage and less than what the law requires.” The suit seeks to represent both present and past employees and could potentially seek tens of millions of dollars in back pay and compensation. Lichter adds, “We’re seeking not only to correct the wrongs that have occurred at Darden, but hopefully this will stimulate change across the country.”
Darden representative, Rick Jeffers says, “We take any claims of impropriety seriously and we routinely investigate them.” Supposedly the company was not aware of the two employees’ complaints prior to the lawsuit since neither worker used the in-house program for addressing disputes and concerns. Jeffers counters the suit’s allegations stating, “Each of our brands complies with all federal and state labor and employment laws. We’re proud of our standing as an employer of choice.”
History may beg to differ. It seems the Department of Labor found violations similar to these claims in several individual investigations, including one in 2011 which resulted in a $30,800 fine and $25,000 in back wages going to Olive Garden employees at a Texas location. The same year, Darden paid out more than $27,000 in back pay and approximately $24,000 civil penalty for labor violations involving Red Lobster employees in Lubbock, Texas.
Cases against Darden are also currently pending in Illinois and New York. This most recent lawsuit is a bit unique, though, in that while just two employees filed the complaint, it seeks to collectively represent “at least thousands of individuals” who are employed or have been employed with the company since 2009. “We think it’s the first lawsuit in the country that seeks a nationwide collective action involving all four of Darden’s flagship restaurants,” says Lichter, adding that since the suit was filed numerous servers across the country have expressed interested in the action.
It is uncertain how much money could be owed to the entire class of affected workers and Lichter points out that the suit is really aimed at putting the restaurant and hospitality industry on notice that abusing poorly paid “tipped employees” will no longer be tolerated. “In these times, people are struggling to get by. They’re entitled to earn at least the minimum wage,” he says.