How New Minimum Wage Lawsuit Appeal Could Affect Restaurant Workers

On January 24, the latest move in the legal battle between One Fair Wage (OFW) and Darden Restaurants Inc, which owns Longhorn Steakhouse and Olive Garden, was made. Reuters reported that OFW made an appeal to the case Darden succeeded in having dismissed on the grounds that OFW isn't an employee. It argues the law allows for anyone "'aggrieved' by workplace discrimination to sue," not just the harassed workers.

The lawsuit began back in April when NBC covered how OFW charged Darden's tipped wage practice with contributing the discriminatory policies against and sexual harassment of its servers. It noted that people of color receive smaller tips than their white co-workers, that managers had the ability to influence wages by assigning who serves when and where, and that workers are encouraged to dress in suggestive manners to solicit further attention from their customers. "The cash wage policy is the direct cause, or at least a motivating cause, of this disparate impact," the complaint stated.

Ptorsha Cozart, one worker at the Darden-owned Cheddar Scratch Kitchen, told Courthouse News that "You have to literally be OK with being harassed if you want to pay your rent." This included customers requesting she remove her face mask during the pandemic to judge her appearance before tipping. Other times, customers would ask for a white server to attend to them. 

The appeal could have a great impact

What OFW has in their sights is the predatory nature of tipped wages. On the One Fair Wage website, the group describes itself as "a national organization of over 200,000 service workers, over 800 restaurant employers, and dozens of organizations" who are fighting to end the practice of tipped wages. Essentially, the issue is that entire premise of paying workers less than minimum wage with the excuse that tips would more than cover the gap between the two is easily exploited.

If the case is successful, it could prove bigger than just Darden's admittedly large resturant empire, creating a precedent for future lawsuits. "As long as you have this system, there's going to be ongoing litigation," Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of Restaurants Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, noted to Civil Eats. A successful case could inspire further lawsuits on the same basis, creating more pressure to eliminate the headache by getting rid of the current tipped wage system.

Perhaps this will indeed be a tipping point. However, for that to happen, the appeal made by OFW has to be accepted.