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Restaurant Horror Show: How Servers Are Abused

Almost 10 percent of the U.S. workforce is in the restaurant industry. Why is it legal to treat them so poorly?
 
 
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This is the second installment in a new series called Working Ahead, which will examine key issues facing the modern American worker, and how we can use our everyday spending habits to help save and create good jobs. The series is brought to you by the AFL-CIO. To read the other stories in this series, click  here.

Lynn’s Paradise Cafe in Louisville, Ky., was a monument to the power of kitschy sculptures and loud colors. Coverage in magazines like Bon Appetit and from TV personalities like Oprah and Bobby Flay brought tourists, and tourists ate fare like bourbon ball French toast and Hot Brown sandwiches. Weekend mornings, you could count on the place being packed with people whose idea of a good place for brunch involved a collection of ugly lamps and $13 Bloody Marys.

But then in January, a former server named Leila DiFazio  accused Lynn’s management of firing her over a new policy that paid servers credit card tips on their paychecks rather than in cash at the end of the night, and required waiters to bring $100 cash to work every day to share tips with untipped staff members. DiFazio refused to comply.

“Bringing in $100 each shift is unrealistic for me because I am [a] single mother of a 2 and a half year-old-boy,” DiFazio wrote on the website of an organization called Kentucky Jobs With Justice, part of the national group Jobs with Justice.

Kentucky Jobs With Justice printed DiFazio’s story as a flier and  distributed it around the restaurant. The next day, without explanation,  Lynn’s closed.

It’s illegal for employers to require tip-pooling, even though tipped staffers often share tips voluntarily with untipped employees like hosts, bussers, dishwashers and cooks. Still, forced tip-pools and other kinds of tip theft are common practices nationwide, according to Daisy Chung, executive director of the  Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an advocacy group for restaurant workers.

“That’s something a lot of people don’t know — the tips you leave for that server may not make it to that person,” Chung said.

This is the age of the farm-to-table restaurant, a time when the menus of many upscale restaurants highlight the place and the practices of where the animals they serve were raised. But while the farmer is having a moment, we often forget the plight of the American restaurant worker — a giant segment of the workforce, and among the last workers who often make less than the minimum wage, relying on customer tips for a living.

We might ask the server about how humanely the free-range chicken was killed — and that very server might be working for a couple dollars an hour, and sick leave, vacation time or other benefits.

Lynn’s isn’t the only restaurant where workers have questioned how tips are paid out. ROC-NY reached a  $1.15 million settlement with Mario Batali’s restaurant Del Posto in September 2012 over accusations of tip misappropriation, wage theft and discrimination — accusations Batali denied. His management group  settled an unrelated class action suitearlier in 2012 over claims that over 1,000 employees in his Manhattan restaurants were forced to fork over a percentage of their tips to the house — that settlement came to $5.25 million.

Chung described tip-sharing schemes as an attempt by owners to solve a business problem — how to compensate low-wage back-of-house employees without actually paying them enough to live on. So they often reach into the pockets of the underpaid waitstaff to do it. “Tipped workers are required to subsidize non-tipped workers, because the restaurant doesn’t actually want to pay more,” she said.

 
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