Scott Holland Jul. 1, 2015, 2:22pm

A man who worked as a busser at the Mastro’s Steakhouse in Chicago is suing the company for allegedly improperly operating a tip pooling system in violation of state and federal wage laws.

In addition to its Chicago location, a piano bar and fine-dining establishment on North Dearborn Street in River North, Mastro’s operates high-end steakhouses in Arizona, California, Nevada, New York and Washington, D.C. The Nevada-based chain promotes itself as offering a cosmopolitan, entertaining atmosphere for service of its steak and seafood menu items. The company website says Mastro’s is “committed to providing a positive, safe and supportive work environment in which hospitality-minded employees are developed, trained and rewarded.”

Former employee Jose Murata, however, said the chain owes him unpaid compensation, damages, statutory penalties and legal fees. Murata filed his collective and class action complaints in federal court in Chicago June 24. He is accusing Mastro’s of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Illinois Minimum Wage Law and the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, his class action claims.

Under state and federal laws, Mastro’s and other restaurants are able to classify bussers as tipped employees, then use the gratuities from customers toward those employees’ wages, up to a certain amount, allowing the restaurant to pay an hourly wage less than the legal minimum. In the language of Murata’s complaint, any employee contributing to or drawing from the Mastro’s tip pool is a tip pool employee.

During and after Murata’s employment at Mastro’s, servers are required, at the end of each shift, to contribute a specific dollar amount to the tip pool. The entirety of the pool is supposed to be divided among all tip pool employees, including bussers like Murata. Participation in this system is mandatory for all tip pool employees, and the tip pool allocations are supposed to combine with the restaurant’s base pay to make sure employee’s checks cumulatively reflect at least the minimum wage. The additional earnings attributed to tips may not exceed the value of the tips an employee actually received.

However, Murata said, Mastro’s keeps a portion of the tip pool for itself. As a result, he and other employees did not earn what would be equivalent to the minimum wage. In filing his collection and class actions, Murata asserts many other tip pool employees were negatively affected by the Mastro’s approach to tip pooling. He seeks to include in the complaint any person who worked as an hourly Mastro’s employee from June 24, 2012, to the present.

“This is not a collusive or friendly action,” the complaint states, noting Murata “has retained counsel experienced in complex employment litigation … his counsel will fairly and adequately protect the interests of” all hourly employees.

In regards to the class action allegations, Murata specifies the employee starting date of June 24, 2012, with respect to allegations related to the Illinois Minimum Wage Law, and a date of June 24, 2005, for those related to the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act. In both cases, he includes only tip pool workers from the Chicago Mastro’s, though he implies that includes more than 100 people.

Murata, seeking a jury trial, is represented by attorneys James X. Bormes and Catherine P. Sons, of the Law Offices of James X. Bormes, and attorney Thomas M. Ryan, all of Chicago.

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