At Restaurant Week, Wage Theft on Capital Grille Menu, Activists Say

July 20, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Ignazio Villegas, in white "chef's hat," holds a "Restaurant Week!" sign outside the Capital Grille in Midtown Manhattan on July 19. He has been employed at the Capital Grille for eight years, and says he has seen racial discrimination and violations of wage laws. Photo by Samantha Grace Lewis

As diners headed toward the Capital Grille on July 19 to enjoy a discounted prix fixe meal as part of Restaurant Week, they were greeted with an unusual sight. Sign-wielding restaurant workers and activists, decked out in chef hats, were handing out “menus” alleging the restaurant’s management had served up wage law violations and racially discriminated against some employees.

The protest outside the restaurant in Midtown Manhattan was organized by the local branch of the Restaurant and Opportunities Center (ROC), a nonprofit labor advocacy group, as part of its ongoing “Dignity at Darden” campaign.

“I’ve seen people working three different positions but they only get paid for one, and people working extra hours without payment. Also, black people — bus boys trying to become servers — asking for a promotion but they’re denied. So clear discrimination,” said protester Ignazio Villegas, a banquet station employee originally from Mexico, who said he’s been working at the Capital Grille for eight years.

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All photos by Samantha Grace Lewis

Those complaints are exactly what’s being included in ROC’s lawsuit.

In January, the national ROC-United filed a lawsuit against Darden Restaurant Group, which owns the Capital Grille, Olive Garden, Red Lobster and other national chains, alleging that multiple Darden restaurants in New York and four other cities participated in racial discrimination and wage theft — the illegal underpayment or non-payment of workers’ wages.

But due to the complex nature of state and local wage laws, ROC said it decided to refile its litigation on a state-by-state basis. It has created separate wage cases for five cities that Darden operates in. The New York case against Darden filed on July 16 exclusively concerns the theft of employees’ earned wages at the Capital Grille in Manhattan. Meanwhile, ROC has filed racial discrimination charges against Darden with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) at the federal level, which include charges from New York Capital Grille employees. The racial discrimination charges are pending.

A spokesperson for ROC-NY said that the aim of their legal strategy is to file separate cases in each state, but try to reach an agreement with Darden Restaurant Group at the national level.

“The lawsuit aspect, which is just one aspect, is around two major claims. One is wage theft —  the front of the house failing to tip out non-tipped employees, particularly dishwashers, and also people working off the clock. Another one that is huge in all five cities is issues of racial discrimination, which has taken the form of bussers not being promoted to much higher paying jobs. They’re all immigrants and workers of color,” said John Cronan, an organizer with ROC.

Darden Restaurant Group claims the allegations are false, as it has since day one.

“Our position on this issue remains the same as when the suit was filed back in January. We believe the allegations are baseless and run counter to our values and how we operate our business. We look forward to presenting the facts as the process plays out,” said Rich Jeffers, a spokesperson for Darden.

Because ROC is a nonprofit worker’s center, they rely more heavily on direct actions, like the one on July 19, than many unions would in order to put public pressure on companies. And since many restaurant workers are often more replaceable than workers in other industries, ROC believes many workers are often too intimidated to protest, so the nonprofit depends on activists to participate in these actions.

“At this location we started with 12 workers, and now we have 24 workers,” said Cronan, who explained those are Capital Grille workers who “work at the restaurant and are actively ROC members and have signed their support for the legal claim.”

On July 19, a handful of diners came outside of the restaurant to see what the hubbub was about, while the nervous or befuddled facial expressions  of other diners could be seen through the Capital Grille’s windows.

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