WEEKEND EDITION

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

| July 20, 2012 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.

Click on images to open slideshow:

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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nikki-Pons/1149236146 Nikki Pons

    “One is wage theft – the front of the house failing to tip out non-tipped employees, particularly dishwashers…”

    I am a server and tip outs should be illegal.  It is wage theft, theft of my tips.  I do not hire bus people and cooks, I do not decide weather or not to promote them to tipped positions, and I do not have any say in who gets hired or fired for any other position in the restaurant, I am not the manager nor the owner, I am not responsible for paying thier wages, I am not thier employer. IF a customer gives me a tip and makes it clear that I am to pass it on to the cook or the dishwasher, that is fair, but most tips are meant for me and you bet I keep every dime.

    If you want to earn tips, apply to be a server. If you feel you have been discriminated against, you may be right and if so, you know what to do. One thing is for sure, I am not the reason you did not get the job.

    Dishwashers and cooks are not tipped positions, instead, OUR employer is responsible for paying them and giving regular raises when they deserve them.  If you are a back of the house worker, keep your paws out of my apron, those tips are mine.  

    • http://www.facebook.com/tashauna.sites Shaun Sites

      I am a busser at olive gardwn,i bust my ass for the 1.5% precent tipout I get,I always have to pick up the slack of the servers,be it clearing an entire table which they are actually requred to pre-bus and usually dont,or simply helping them carry out food,which is technically part of my job but not required,I do the work of three to keep tables turning so you can make your tips,if it wasnt for me you wouldnt make half of what you do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nikki-Pons/1149236146 Nikki Pons

    Industry employers do discriminate in terms of front of the house workers.  Hooters only hires women with well, big hooters.  Dutch Bros. only hires young good looking baristas.  All restaurant and bars hire not just according to skill, but according to the look and feel they want to project to the guest.  I myself have been discriminated against, I am middle aged with about 30 years of experience in restaurant, 5 working as a barista.  Cant get on at Dutch Bros to save my life.  When I look for a job, I look at the servers, if I see middle aged women there, I apply, otherwise, I move on.  It is just the way the industry works. 

    Is it disrimination? Sure. What about acting companies who hire a certain look/age/race for a particular part in a movie?  Sure it is.  Strip joints hire young, nubile people to dance for thier patrons, they also hire one or two bbw for patrons who enjoy that kind of body.  Discrimination, you bet.  Should it be illegal to do that? According to a law suit filed against Hooters, no.  The restaraunt has the right to hire according to the image it wants to project. 

    If you are a diswasher who has no teeth, barely speaks english, and has a limited concept of hygene and ettequite, you will probably not get a front of the house job. No law will force the employer to hire you if you do not have the look the employer wants in front of the house workers.

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