Will Lawsuits Restore a Tiny Bit of Dignity to Food Service Employees?

In recent months, many common restaurant management practices and the daily injustices restaurant workers are used to enduring have been deemed illegal or inappropriate. This week, a judge in Illinois ruled that it was not legal for Applebee's to force tipped employees to perform non-tipped duties, such as cleaning toilets.

Back in March, Mario Batali and his business partners in New York agreed to pay $5.25 million in damages to workers who claimed that a portion of their tips had been withheld. And while it hasn't come to legal action yet, the publicity surrounding the alleged sexual harassment of 22 women by a Park Slope chef shines a light on the problem of widespread sexual harassment in the restaurant industry.

These instances of worker exploitation are far from uncommon. In the 10+ years I worked in the restaurant industry, both front and back of the house, I experienced blatant and subtle harassment, was forced to perform duties far beyond the realm of my tipped-worker status (cleaning, inventory, schedule-writing, searching the ground outside in the sleet for pretty fall leaves to use as "table garnish"), and routinely had my tips withheld and pocketed by owners.

I complained about these things privately but rarely considered that there was any recourse. The idea that servers are completely at the mercy of a restaurant's owners and management is as ingrained in the culture of the industry as the notion that a cook will work 60 hours a week without overtime and should never, ever call in sick to work even if she may get her customers and fellow workers sick as a result. If you don't like it, find work elsewhere.

But the recent lawsuits and publicity surrounding them hint at the possibility that the culture could change -- out of necessity. And while progress may be a good thing no matter how it comes about, it occurs to me that many of these misunderstandings (to be nice about it) could be avoided if everyone involved had access to and understood the labor laws. At one restaurant I worked at where the owners routinely withheld tips, I brought in a copy of the laws for them to look at. They weren't happy about it, but they didn't steal my tips after that. Or anyone else's.

Here's some information about the labor laws regarding tipping in California. And here's some information on the "duel job" situation that got Applebee's into trouble. Stay legal out there.

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