On Tuesday, a New York federal judge granted 42,000 TGI Friday’s workers conditional certification in their collective action lawsuit alleging wage theft.
U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres ruled that they have shown common allegations that the chain restaurant violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by failing to pay them at least the minimum wage and overtime for extra work. Two class action lawsuits were filed last year: one by employees in Massachusetts and another by 17,700 employees in the New York metro area and Fredericksburg, VA.
Both accuse the company of making employees work off the clock without giving them extra pay. In New York and Virginia, workers say they were required to arrive well before the start of business hours and work after the restaurants closed without getting minimum wage and/or overtime pay. They also accused the chain of using a centralized time-keeping system that shaved hours of their work from their records and made them work off the clock doing non-tipped tasks such as cleaning and preparing food in bulk. In Massachusetts, the lawsuit said that workers who put in more than 40 hours a week, the threshold for receiving time and a half in overtime pay, worked any additional hours off the clock. They also say waitstaff were forced to give some of their tips to host staff, who are paid the full hourly minimum wage, reducing the waitstaff’s pay to below the required minimum wage.
The workers are seeking to recover the wages they say they were due as well as misappropriated tips. The company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Tuesday’s win comes after the lawyer representing employees accused TGI Friday’s of trying to “pick off” plaintiffs who joined the class action lawsuit by offering more than $416,000 in settlements to 19 workers. So far 15 have accepted the offers.
Wage theft, or when employers don’t pay the required minimum wage and overtime through various means, is a huge problem, particularly for low-wage workers. The sum of money recovered from employers who stole from their workers in 2012 was nearly three times greater than all the money stolen in reported robberies that year. Even that is an undercount, however, because so few people report it; the total sum of money stolen from employees annually is likely more than $50 billion. It’s also a problem that’s increasing: complaints of wage theft rose 400 percent over the last decade.
Those who work in food service are particularly vulnerable. Nine out of ten fast food workers say they have experienced wage theft. And employees at various chain restaurants have also filed lawsuits, from McDonald’s to sandwich store Jimmy John’s to Chipotle to Papa John’s to Subway.
Wage theft violates the FLSA and is therefore illegal, but it is also clearly still widespread and it can be hard for workers to get justice. In California, 83 percent of workers who actually brought a claim and won still never saw a cent of their owed money. So to crack down on these practices, some cities and states have enacted ordinances of their own.