From 2015 to early 2016, Robert Fitz, a Talula's Garden line cook claims he and his coworkers were forced to work without pay — something of the norm in the restaurant industry, but not permissible, or legal, in any way.
Today, Philadelphia magazine reported on the current U.S. Department of Labor investigation underway at Starr Restaurants's Washington Square farm-to-table restaurant, where Fitz contended he was "expected to start work between roughly 11 a.m. and noon each day, but weren't allowed to clock in until 3 p.m." Those four "unpaid" hours were considered "French-style overtime" according to Meghann Altomare, Talula's Garden's pastry chef from 2014 to 2015, who wasn't faced with wage theft herself, but saw it happen at Talula's first-hand.
This isn't Starr's first rodeo with wage-theft charges: back in 2012, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Starr, claiming a cook and other employees at his Fort Lauderdale steakhouse Steak 954 weren't compensated for working overtime. Philly Mag conceded that "the case was later withdrawn by the plaintiff and refiled against another entity, unaffiliated with Starr, that settled the case."
"I honestly don't know who [Fitz] is, and we are looking into it," Starr told Philly Mag. "We make every effort to abide by all the labor laws. So if anything did happen, I didn't know about it, and we are looking into it. ... I assure you we are doing everything we're supposed to do."
There's too a discrepancy between Talula's Garden co-owner Aimee Olexy's story and Fitz's:
Last Friday evening, when Philadelphia reached out to Olexy for details, she said she had "no knowledge" of such claims beforehand. But according to Fitz, a Department of Labor investigator told him that he had already been into the restaurant to conduct his investigation that Friday.
Back in May, President Obama achieved what Eater's Ryan Sutton called "the most significant development in federal labor policy over the past decade." Here's how:
Since 2004, the annual overtime threshold has remained at $23,660. Salaried employees earning in excess of that are frequently (and legally) excluded from time-and-a-half pay because their employers classify them as executive, professional, or administrative employees; that's why you don't see oodles of chefs, sommeliers, and food writers raking in the Bentley bucks when they burn the midnight oil.
With the Department of Labor's new rule in place, "salaried employees earning less than $47,500 will automatically qualify for overtime" — a big jump from the previous $23,660.
Sutton writes, "It's not uncommon for entry-level professionals at restaurants, fast-food chains, and news outlets to work more than 40 hours a week for no extra pay. Why? Because those workers are expected to do just that if they want to move up the corporate ladder. Because those workers view the extra hours as a necessary tradeoff for the more stable lifestyle and benefits of salary (versus hourly) pay. And because those workers don't want to lose their jobs."
Such is the case for Fitz and apparently 40 percent of the restaurant industry according to a Restaurant Opportunities Center 2012 survey of 600 restaurant workers in the city. Philly Mag reports, "For months, current and past employees of Talula's Garden say they have been organizing with the Restaurant Opportunities Center in hopes of improving working conditions in Philadelphia. They say this is just the beginning of their fight."
A former Talula's Garden employee Mariel Cohn spoke with "more than 40 people who have experienced or witnessed line cooks regularly working without pay at the restaurant." Together, they're still considering filing a suit, but before they do, they've outlined some preliminary stipulations:
They not only want to be compensated for the time in the past they’ve allegedly worked off the clock, but also a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour for tipped employees, mandatory sexual harassment training, and an extra bathroom for workers, among other things.
That was in the summer. Cohn told Philly Mag that Talula's responded by letting employees clock in immediately upon arrival.