A former server has filed a lawsuit against the Hickory Tavern restaurant chain alleging the company paid her and hundreds of other workers $2.13 an hour but required them to do side work for which they should have received minimum wage.
The federal claim is similar to those in lawsuits filed against other well-known eateries across the country and comes as North Carolina workers are increasingly relying on restaurants for jobs.
The suit accuses the Charlotte-based chain of violating federal law involving tipped employees. Fair labor rules allow restaurants to pay servers a reduced rate as long as tips cover the difference between that rate and the federal minimum wage – $7.25 per hour.
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Vanessa Chavez, who worked in a Winston-Salem location, says managers required workers to spend much of their shifts performing non-tipped tasks like cleaning and stocking.
In an interview, Chavez said when she took her concerns to management, she was told she “shouldn’t complain because it is a lot worse at other places.”
“I just thought it wasn’t right for them to take advantage of these servers,” said Chavez, 27, who left her job at Hickory Tavern last year after four months. “A lot of them are young and a lot of them did not know (the law).”
The suit filed earlier this week in federal court in Winston Salem is a collective action, meaning that other current and former Hickory Tavern employees can join the litigation.
T&B Management and T&B Concepts of Hickory, which owns Hickory Tavern, operates 23 restaurants and employs more than 250 tipped workers in the Carolinas, Tennessee and Alabama.
The company refused an interview request, saying it does not comment on lawsuits.
More than 450,000 people in North Carolina work in restaurants and food service jobs, about 12 percent of the state’s total workforce. That number is projected to grow nearly 15 percent by 2026, according to the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association.
Owners of Ruby Tuesdays, Houlihan’s and other famous franchises around the nation in recent years have been accused of violating state laws and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which governs minimum wage and overtime pay.
Labor advocates scored a major victory in 2012 when the U.S. Supreme refused to hear Applebee’s International Inc.’s challenge to a lawsuit brought by thousands of bartenders and servers who alleged the company did not pay them properly.
Applebee’s said that it did nothing wrong. The company maintained that it was allowed to pay the workers a reduced rate because the duties are a normal part of working as a bartender or server and that it does not matter how work time is divided.
Applebee’s also argued the courts that would be imposing unworkable administrative and financial burdens in an industry where restaurants often operate on thin profit margins.
But the court deferred to Labor Department rules, which hold that tipped workers are entitled to the full minimum wage for so-called side jobs or non-tipped work if they spent more than 20 percent of their time on such duties.
In the Hickory Tavern case, Chavez said she typically worked 30 hours a week. She said she the restaurant required her to spend as much as 40 percent of her time on non-tipped duties.
Paul Dickinson, a Charlotte attorney representing Chavez, said many restaurant workers are young, inexperienced and too fearful to complain about unfair wages.
“They are afraid to lose their jobs,” Dickinson said. “Restaurants take advantage.”
Chavez said she had prior experience working as a server at other restaurants and began questioning the pay practices at Hickory Tavern soon after she started.
She said she was often ask to clean tables assigned to other servers, which meant she would not be collecting a tip for the work.
“It’s a very stressful job,” Chavez said. “It is even more stressful when you are being cheated out of money.”
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