NYC Restaurateurs: Having to Pay Our Workers Is Destroying Us

Let's take a moment from our busy Sundays to remember the plight of New York City's fancy restaurant owners, who—because of "draconian state regulations" passed earlier this year—have become increasingly vulnerable to lawsuits filed by employees seeking back pay and tips. Why can't those workers just enjoy the privilege of working and "being seen" in popular restaurants?

The New York Post reports that greedy and self-serving servers, cooks, and other restaurant employees have been filing an "avalanche" of "vicious lawsuits" since new laws protecting workers and increasing penalties on misbehaving employers went into effect earlier this year. The workers brazenly assert their rights by hiring "money-hungry" laywers who "prey" upon them by advertising in Spanish-language and ethnic newspapers and providing free information on wage and labor laws. (Lawyers should conduct their business in secret!) One such lawyer is Daniel Maimon Kirschenbaum, who has won at least $30 million in settlements on behalf of NYC restaurant employees; to inspire outrage about his success, the Paper of Record mentions that Kirschenbaum takes a 30 percent cut from the cases he wins or settles. This is actually lower than the average contingency fee, but still! If Kirschenbaum really cared about these workers, he would represent them for free.

And if the workers themselves really cared about the economy, or about people other than themselves, they would also work for free. Forcing their bosses to pay them what they're owed "threatens to cripple" the whole NYC restaurant industry, the Post reports. Restaurateur Joe Bastianich, who has been sued by employees twice, tells the Post that he's done opening restaurants in the city because he can't bear the thought of being subjected to any more "frivolous" lawsuits filed by ungrateful workers who earn "70, 80, $100,000 a year" or more. "You're forced to settle," he told the Post. "Why go to trial and risk a $5 million settlement if you can settle for a million and a half?"

In exposing this grave injustice-avalanche, which could shutter all of new York's best restaurants and result in a famine among the city's elite, the Post doesn't mention that some of the city's big-time restaurateurs might have contributed to their own problems. The publicist of Geoffrey Zakarian, a chef who owned the now-closed restaurant Country, says her client filed for bankruptcy earlier this year "because of the 'enormous costs of defending a class-action lawsuit by former employees.'" However, in April the New York Times reported that one of Zakarian's business partners had come out in support of the workers, while another accused him of violating labor laws. Both partners settled with the workers.

The Post article also includes no quotes or salary info from workers themselves, because don't they complain enough? But the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an organization that represents NYC workers, reports that the median salary of NYC restaurant workers is only $20,000. A National Employment Law Project survey of 1,439 restaurant workers called Working Without Laws: A Survey of Employment and Labor Law Violations in New York City reports that "fully 21 percent" of participants reported being paid less than the legal minimum wage, mostly by $1 or more. Seventy-seven percent hadn't received overtime pay, and 55 percent hadn't received any documentation of their earnings as required under state law. None of this would matter if the workers were less selfish.

About that last statistic: The Post quotes a lawyer who represents some teary-eyed pizzeria owner in Queens who had to pay employees damages because "he wasn't keeping proper time records, so he didn't have a defense." Easy solution to this problem: keep some damned records. Then you can document how you've never taken wages or overtime pay from your employees, and expose them as the heartless, self-serving bastards they truly are.

[NY Post. Image via Shutterstock]