Restaurant Wait Staff Gets Stiffed

A Coral Gables restaurant agreed to pay $53,324 in back wages to 27 employees following a Department of Labor investigation. Cafe Vialetto in Coral Gables, FL agreed to pay its employees after federal investigators determined the restaurant did not pay wait staff for hours worked before and after their shifts, violating minimum wage laws. The DOL also found that the restaurant violated the overtime pay and record keeping requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Minimum wage and overtime pay violations are very common in the restaurant industry. Illegal pay practices are so common in the industry that many restaurant workers assume that the practices must be legal. Exploitation of restaurant workers is particularly troubling because their wages are among the nations lowest. Restaurant jobs meager wages make them some of the worst paying jobs in America.

Restaurant and Service Workers Top Worst Paying Job List

Forbes ranks the 25 best and worst paying jobs in America. The ranking is based upon the U.S. Government’s National, State and Metropolitan Area Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates using 2006 data. Not surprisingly the restaurant and other service workers dominate the worst paying jobs list. Medical professionals hold 13 of the 15 top spots.

The worst paying job classification in America is “combined food preparation and service workers, including fast food.” The mean annual wages for such workers was $15,930.

The complete list of worst paying job classifications are:

  1. combined food preparation and service workers, including fast food
  2. fast food cooks
  3. dishwashers
  4. dining room and cafeteria attendants and bartender helpers
  5. hosts and hostesses, restaurant, lounge and coffee shop
  6. counter attendants, cafeteria, food concession, and coffee shop
  7. gaming dealers
  8. shampooers
  9. waiters and waitresses
  10. ushers, lobby attendants, and ticket takers
  11. amusement and recreation attendants
  12. farm workers and laborers, crop, nursery, and greenhouse
  13. cashiers
  14. personal and home care aides
  15. lifeguards, ski patrol, and other recreational protective service workers
  16. parking lot attendants
  17. pressers, textile, garment, and related materials
  18. food preparation workers
  19. bartenders
  20. graders and sorters, agricultural products
  21. maids and housekeeping cleaners
  22. cooks, short order
  23. child care workers
  24. laundry and dry-cleaning workers
  25. service station attendants
  26. Service station attendants, the best of the worst, had a mean annual wage of $19,150.

Servers and Other Restaurant Workers Are Getting Short Changed

Minimum wage and overtime violations are rampant throughout the restaurant industry. These violations affect servers, bartenders, bus persons, hosts and hostesses, and kitchen staff. FLSA minimum wage and overtime violations in the restaurant industry are particularly disturbing because of the low wages earned by most restaurant workers. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reports median hourly earnings (as of May 2004) for restaurant workers: fast-food cooks earn $7.07 per hour; waiters and waitresses (including tips) earn 6.75 per hour; bartenders (including tips) earn $7.42 per hour; and hosts and hostesses earn $7.52 per hour.

The scope of violations in the restaurant industry is evident by reviewing the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division’s enforcement record over the past several years.  Many restaurants across the country, particularly smaller ethnic restaurant chains, have been subject to DOL enforcement actions. 

Las Palmas Mexican Restaurants, for example, agreed to pay $130,698 in back overtime wages to 85 employees who worked at three restaurants in Nashville, Tennessee.  The Wage and Hour Division’s investigation revealed that servers, busboys, hostesses and kitchen staff had not been properly paid under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). 

La Tapatia Mexican Café y Cantina in Houston has paid $109,708 in back pay after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division found 217 current and former servers and cooks had not been properly paid.  According to the Wage and Hour Division the company violated the minimum wage and overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), by paying servers straight time for all hours worked and also by failing to pay overtime to non-exempt cooks.

A Federal Court in Minnesota ordered El Mariachi restaurants in Fairmont and Austin, Minnesota to pay 21 workers $39,931 in unpaid overtime compensation, minimum wages and liquidated damages.

In Indiana, 245 restaurant workers, including cooks, servers and bus persons recovered $350,041 because of the DOL’s efforts.  The workers were employed in 11 different restaurants throughout Indiana.  Another dozen Indian workers, kitchen workers at Mexico City Grill, in Indianapolis and Mi Casa Mexican Restaurant in Greenfield, Indiana were ordered to receive $10,000 in unpaid overtime wages.

In Austin, Texas eight kitchen staff employees recovered $51,347 in back wages from The New Mandarin Chinese Restaurant

Asian Super Buffet La. Inc. in Kenner, Louisiana violated the FLSA by including tips, meals and lodging as part of the wait staff’s compensation for hours worked, resulting in employee wages below the federal minimum wage. The company also failed to properly compensate employees for overtime hours and to maintain required records. As a result, Asian Super Buffet agreed to pay $77,218 in back wages to 26 current and former kitchen workers and wait staff. 

El Nopal Mexican Restaurant paid back wages totaling $95,800 due to 15 employees of the Valley Park, Missouri restaurant following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Wage and Hour Division. According to the investigation, the work force consisted of primarily low-wage Hispanic workers employed as servers and cooks.  Restaurant officials were found in violation of the minimum wage, overtime and record-keeping provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Approximately $68,000 of the total was due from the minimum-wage provision violations, and the remaining $27,000 involved unpaid overtime compensation.

San Pietro Restaurant, an Italian eatery located in Midtown Manhattan, paid 45 employees a total of $102,216 in overtime back wages. According to a U.S. Department of Labor investigation, the restaurant improperly paid cooks, waiters and bus boys among others. The investigation found that many employees worked more than 40 hours a week without receiving overtime pay. Investigators determined that employees worked an average of 52 hours per week. Management officials of San Pietro Restaurant agreed to pay employees the back wages they were due and to come into full compliance with the FLSA in the future.

While most of the DOL’s enforcement actions have targeted local restaurant chains. National chains and franchises face similar issues. In 2006, the DOL filed a lawsuit against Barbeque Ventures LLC, Barbeque Ventures of Nebraska LLC and Old Market Ventures LLC, known as Famous Dave’s, to collect $92,516 in back wages due 25 employees. The department alleged that the employees (kitchen workers and servers) at all five Famous Dave’s locations in Omaha and Bellevue, Nebraska, and Council Bluffs, Iowa were not paid overtime.

In Nashville a restaurant worker at two Sbarro Restaurants, operated by franchisee F & S Foods, Inc., filed a federal lawsuit claiming that he and his co-workers were not properly paid for overtime hours and were required to work off the clock without compensation. The employer told the Court that it had compensated its employees for unpaid overtime and agreed to the entry of an $11,000 judgment in favor of the one employee who filed the lawsuit.