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NY Restaurant Owners and Chefs Sued For Wages

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on September 07, 2010 7:07 AM

So a lawyer walks into a restaurant ... It sounds like the beginning of a lawyer joke and it could be; but this time, is the joke on the restaurant owners? Lawyers in Manhattan, one of the centers of the culinary universe, are after some very high-profile restaurant owners and chefs for what they say are illegal wage practices. Like big names Mario Batali and Bobby Flay, now other high-profile chefs are the subjects of suits claiming their employees are made to share tips, denied overtime and are not paid the minimum wage required.

According to the Wall Street Journal, suits have been brought against Chef Michael White and his partner Chris Cannon, who run the highly-regarded "Alto" in midtown Manhattan (among others), as well as world famous Iron Chef, Masaharu Morimoto. In Morimoto's case, the plaintiff is former bar-back, Jose Bueno, who alleges he was made to share tips with non-service workers and did not receive the full 20% service charge for serving private parties with more than 12 people.

The Journal reports the suit against White and Cannon alleges employees were required to share tips with the general manager and had to buy and launder their uniform jackets. It is a violation of New York state law to allow the maintenance of his uniform to push an employee's wage below the minimum.

Restaurant owners (big or small) may be able to pay employees less than the minimum wage if they earn tips. However, employees must be paid a wage plus tips which adds up to at least the minimum wage, per hour worked. Some of the restaurant suits may be based on the premise that if workers were paid below the minimum wage and made to share tips, they may not be earning the full "tip credit" they are entitled to. State and federal minimum and tip laws vary, so each should be checked to avoid just this sort of litigation.

Some critics say the upswing in these types of lawsuits is due to only a small group of law firms looking for publicity. However, others see it as a long term issue all in the food industry should be aware of.

"I think there are a lot of practices in the restaurant industry that were going on for a long time that were ripe for litigation," Cynthia Estlund, a professor at New York University School of Law, told the Journal.

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