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Fed up over years of low pay and discrimination from profitable restaurant owners, workers, with the support of ROC United, launched a new national campaign today to improve jobs in the restaurant industry. As part of that campaign, under the banner “Dignity at Darden,” workers in New York, the Washington, DC area and Chicago announced the filing of a class action lawsuit against Darden Restaurants – the largest full-service casual dining company in the world – for discrimination and wage theft at its high-end Capital Grille restaurants in those cities. The suit alleges violations of the Civil Rights Act that are reflective of a corporate-wide policy of racial discrimination and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and state wage and hour laws for wage theft against all workers. Accompanying the lawsuit, ROC United also released today a briefing paper on discrimination faced by workers of color nationwide, entitled, “Blacks in the Restaurant Industry.”
“While many Americans have worked at a restaurant at some point in their lives, they don’t realize that there are millions of people who make restaurant jobs their career,” said Saru Jayaraman, Co-Director of ROC United. “All too often, these workers face poverty wages, no sick leave, and no opportunities for advancement. With more than 10 million families relying on restaurant work to make ends meet, we need restaurants to provide good jobs that can support families, strengthen our communities, and help give our recovering economy the lift it needs.”
Improving pay and benefits and removing barriers to advancement for workers in this large and fast-growing industry are critical to the nation’s economic recovery. The restaurant industry is one of the few sectors growing in today’s economy, and restaurant workers account for nearly one in 12 private sector workers. The restaurant industry made $604 billion in sales in 2011, with Darden’s sales totaling in excess of $7 billion. Darden owns and operates approximately 1,900 restaurants worldwide, including Capital Grille, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and Longhorn Steakhouse, and made more than half a billion dollars in net income in fiscal year 2011. Their CEO is from Wall Street – a former executive of J.P. Morgan, Kidder, Peabody & Company, and First Boston Corporation – and in 2011 had compensation of more than $8 million along with stock shares and options worth $22 million, all the while Darden restaurant workers are paid as little as $2.13 per hour for tipped employees and $7.25 per hour for non-tipped employees, with no paid sick days.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of restaurant workers in Chicago, New York, and the Washington, DC area details allegations of racial discrimination, wage theft, and hostile and abusive workplaces in Capital Grille locations across the country. As stated in the complaint, many of the ‘back-of-the-house’ positions (dishwashers, food prep) are given to workers of color, while the more lucrative ‘front-of-the-house’ positions (servers, bartenders) are given to white workers. At the Capital Grille’s Chevy Chase location in the Washington, DC area, for example, almost all of the African-American workers were terminated after a corporate representative stated that one did not “meet Capital Grille’s standards.” This reflects the conclusions of a national briefing paper released by ROC United today, Blacks in the Restaurant Industry, which finds that 58 percent of black restaurant workers are confined to the lowest wage, ‘quick serve’ segment of the industry, while only 26 percent of white restaurant workers are in that low-wage sector. And in the higher wage part of the industry – fine dining — servers are almost four times more likely to be white than black, while 95 percent of bussers are people of color. This results in black restaurant workers earning an average of $4 per hour less than whites.
Other violations cited in the lawsuit against Darden include forcing employees to work without pay, not providing breaks to workers, and forcing tipped workers to share their tips with non-tipped workers. At the announcement today, current and former Darden employees shared stories of their employment at Darden-owned restaurants, including Carlos Marban, former dishwasher at Capital Grille in Chicago. ”Working in the dish room was some of the hardest work I have ever done,” said Carlos, “Dirty dishes keep coming all night with no break and there is great pressure to worker faster and faster. Some nights as we threw out trash or were changing clothes we found that we had been punched out, and weren’t getting paid for all the work we did. We barely got paid what a small piece of the beef we cleaned off plates cost. To get worked so hard, paid so little, and then have our wages stolen feels terrible.”
The workers filing the lawsuit are members of Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, the only national restaurant workers’ organization in the U.S. and seeks to improve wages and working conditions for the nation’s low-wage restaurant workforce. The new campaign comes on the heels of a recent report by ROC-United and Cornell University, “Taking the High Road” which challenges the idea that restaurants can only prosper with low labor costs. Research in the report shows that providing employees with sustainable wages, benefits and opportunities for advancement helps to ensure the long-term success and financial stability of a restaurant. The campaign also includes ROC-United’s 2012 Diners’ Guide, which provides information on the treatment of workers in restaurants across the country, singling out both the ‘high road’ and ‘low road’ employers.
“Whether it’s working with employers who embrace ‘high road’ practices and encouraging other restaurants to do the same, or holding accountable ‘low road’ employers, like Darden’s Capital Grille, we are sending a message through this campaign that restaurant workers deserve a living wage and to be treated with dignity,” said Veronica Avila, Coordinator of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Chicago.
To Ilan Hall, owner of The Gorbals restaurant in Los Angeles, taking the high road is a smart business decision. “When your employees are happy and feel valued, they produce a better product,” said Hall, “As your product consistently improves, so does your business. It’s so simple yet overlooked so frequently.” The campaign will be releasing additional information over the coming months that highlights low and high road employers across the country and details additional solutions for addressing unfair treatment of workers.