Sandra Pedicini, Sept 18th, 2012

The Orlando shareholder’s meeting of Darden Restaurants turned confrontational Tuesday when several workers and activists brought complaints directly to Chief Executive Officer Clarence Otis.

Former and current employees attended the gathering with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an advocacy group that has sued Darden’s Capital Grille over allegations it underpaid and discriminated against workers. Darden has said the suit is baseless.

The complaints, which included lack of paid sick time and changes in compensation, came during a question and answer session after Otis touted Darden as a great place to work. Darden, he said, has “an extraordinary record when it comes to employees and employee engagement.”

John Cronan, an organizer with Restaurant Opportunities Centers, said he was a former Capital Grille waiter often waited on customers while ill. “I couldn’t afford to take a day off even if I was sick,” he said.

Otis told him, “As a former worker, you know that we have very strict and aggressive rules to encourage people not to come to work when they’re ill, so I’m glad you’re a former employee and not a current employee.”

One worker pressed Otis to meet with him and others. Otis resisted, saying Darden has other channels for employees to voice complaints.

“We have 2,000 employees here in this [Orlando] metro area,” he said after one speaker urged him to listen to the workers at the meeting. “So we have plenty of listening just here.”

Darden also meets with employees in other parts of the country, he added.

Other shareholders echoed their concerns. One wondered if Darden could be losing some of its better servers because of policies such as one implemented last year that slashed bartenders’ and busboys’ hourly pay and required servers to share tips with them.

Bill Dempsey of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes social justice and has funded ROC, urged Otis to take the employees’ concerns seriously.

“It strikes me there’s people here today that have obviously come a long way and have a long commitment,” said Dempsey, whose foundation is a Darden shareholder. “I see them as raising some constructive issues. Why not … have some more interaction with them?”

After the meeting, ROC released a report that slammed Darden for its wage practices and for not offering sick pay to hourly employees. Typical of many restaurant companies, Darden pays servers less than minimum wage, which is legal because they earn tips, and it does not provide sick days to hourly employees.

The company says people who call in sick can swap shifts with others.

The complaints are timely, because activists in Orange County have been trying to get a measure on the ballot requiring businesses with 15 or more workers to provide paid sick time. Darden is among companies opposing it.

In its report released Tuesday, ROC focused heavily on sick time. The group blamed a hepatitis scare last year at a North Carolina Olive Garden on a lack of paid sick time. Hundreds of people who had dined there ended up getting vaccinated against hepatitis A after an employee was diagnosed with the disease. A class action lawsuit was filed last year on behalf of those people. Darden said the lawsuit was dropped after it offered to compensate those who had to get innoculated.

Darden said the employee was diagnosed with hepatitis during a routine doctor’s visit, notified the company and did not come into work after that for more than a month, and Darden continued to pay her.

There were no reports of any customers getting sick.

Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers said the report was “full of half-truths, misinformation, innuendo. It’s nothing more than a propaganda piece.” or 407-420-5240.