Civil Justice at Work—Lawsuits Improving Restaurant Industry Practices
Every day, workers are using the civil court system to improve conditions in service industries. In New York City, a worker advocacy group called the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROCNY) is working with aggrieved busboys, waiters, and other restaurant workers to get Manhattan restaurants to start obeying wage and hour laws, to correct discriminatory practices, and to end what some are calling "egregious labor abuses."
For instance, ROCNY and restaurant workers sued the Fireman Hospitality Group, which owns a group of Manhattan restaurants, for illegal practices like allowing managers to take waiters’ tips, losing hours from employees’ time cards, and failing to pay minimum wage and overtime to workers (NYT). Some workers have also filed sexual harassment and racial discrimination claims against the restaurants. Through injunctions, the Restaurant Opportunities Center is also using the courts to protect workers against acts of retaliation—firings, assignment of undesirable shifts, or excessive disciplining--for filing the complaints. The threat of retaliation often has a stifling chilling effect on workers' ability to assert their legal rights. Settlement of these lawsuits is around the corner.
Charles Vogl, a former waiter at one of the restaurants involved in the lawsuits, told the Times:
“I’m really excited about the settlement… We’ve shown that workers who really care about having the law obeyed and who take appropriate action can encourage their employer to obey the law and pay attention. It’s very encouraging to do this in an industry that has so many egregious labor abuses.”
One of the workers’ lawyers reports that the defendant is cooperating to come to an agreeable resolution:
“What’s remarkable about these settlements is the scope of what the company has agreed to do going forward. It’s quite rare in wage-and-hour cases for a company to agree to such important changes.”
The Restaurant Opportunities Center has recovered more than $580,000 in discrimination payments and unpaid wages to workers, and won "non-monetary changes in the workplace such as vacations, sick days, break times, promotions, grievance procedures, to name a few." Incidentally, the Center--which over six years has won 9 campaigns against abusive restaurants--also helped establish one of my favorite NYC bar/restaurants: Colors. Yum. And the restaurant is cooperatively owned by its employees.
For more about worker abuse in the restaurant industry in New York, read ROCNY's report, Behind the Kitchen Door: Pervasive Inequality in New York City's Thriving Restaurant Industry.