Sunday, March 9, 2014
Staff Photo by Doug Jones, Tuesday, June 20, 2006: The Front Room on Munjoy Hill for 6/25 audience taste and tell.
The Front Room\ Harding Lee Smith
PORTLAND — A group of restaurant workers is suing The Front Room, claiming that it violated state and federal wage and hour rules.
The restaurant's owner, Harding Lee Smith, disputes the claims, calling the lawsuit ''frivolous.''
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Portland, is likely to be followed closely by the state's restaurant owners because many of the alleged practices are widespread in the industry.
The lawsuit was brought by six former and current employees of The Front Room, a restaurant and bar on Munjoy Hill. It alleges that Harding, who also owns other restaurants in Portland, failed to pay workers minimum wage and overtime as required by state and federal laws, forced them to share tips with other workers and failed to give workers required breaks.
The plaintiffs are being represented by attorney Donald Fontaine and assisted by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Maine, a workers' advocacy group. They say the practices at issue are common in restaurants and they hope the lawsuit will encourage employers to treat their workers better.
''I worked there a year and a half and I never got one break the whole time, literally,'' said one of the plaintiffs, Sean Slaughter of Portland, who was on The Front Room's wait staff from July 2008 until last month.
''This is actually a workplace justice campaign,'' Slaughter said, noting that the restaurant's workers submitted a letter to the restaurant's management in November seeking changes in working conditions, but were rebuffed.
Slaughter said a key component of the complaint is that waiters and waitresses are paid half the minimum wage, with the expectation that the rest is made up in tips. But often, workers are setting up and cleaning up, and cannot earn tips. During that time, they should be paid the full minimum wage, he said.
The workers are seeking back wages for tips they say were taken from them, as well as wages owed for working overtime and non-tip work.
Smith would not comment on the specific allegations in the lawsuit because he said he had not seen it. The complaint is part of a pattern of harassment by the Restaurant Opportunities Center, ''a national group with its own agenda,'' he said in a prepared statement.
Smith also discounted Slaughter's criticism, saying he is a disgruntled former employee.
The Restaurant Opportunities Center has existed for about eight years nationally. It formed a Maine chapter a year and a half ago.
The New York chapter has lobbied successfully for improved working conditions. Chapters in New Orleans and Detroit have campaigns under way, said Steven Emmons, an organizer with the Maine chapter.
This is the first campaign against an employer by the Maine chapter, he said.
''I seems like a lot of restaurant owners feel their employees are dispensable, just a commodity,'' said Emmons. ''Employers need to treat employees like they're part of the team, the face of the restaurant.''
Dick Grotton, president and chief executive officer of the Maine Restaurant Association, said he hadn't seen the lawsuit but at least some of its wage and hour complaints are without merit.
Grotton said waiters and waitresses have periods of work in which they don't earn tips, but the law allows an owner to average the workers' wages and tips over the course of seven days to ensure that their hourly rate exceeds the minimum wage of $7.50 per hour.
Typically, it can be double or triple that, he said.
''Making the complaint they be paid something different for hours worked setting up their work station is ludicrous. They need to look at what they're making for their shift,'' he said. ''You're talking about folks who are primarily part time, who earn for their workweek multiples of the minimum wage.''
He said that in a five-hour shift, a worker might earn close to $200 in tips.
Grotton said the lawsuit will be decided on the facts of that case alone, but other restaurant owners will keep an eye on it.
''It wouldn't surprise me to learn that some infraction might have been found,'' he said. ''We are in a litigious society and we do have lots of rules and it's very easy to run afoul of some of them.
''But by and large, like every other small employer, (restaurants) work hard to understand what the rules are,'' he said.
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: