A server at the Chicago version of a popular chain of upscale steakhouses has brought a class action lawsuit against her employer, saying the company owes money under federal and state law to her and others who wait tables at the restaurant for compelling them to study for written tests about the restaurant, its menu and their duties while off the clock, without pay.
On Nov. 11, plaintiff Robin Rapai, of Villa Park, filed the complaint in Chicago federal court against Lawry’s The Prime Rib, alleging the company violated the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and the Illinois Minimum Wage Law for refusing to pay her for the time she spent at home studying to pass a written test she claimed the restaurant would use to determine which servers received the most hours or more choice assignments.
Rapai is represented in the action by attorneys James X. Bormes and Catherine P. Sons, of Chicago.
According to the lawsuit, Rapai said the restaurant ownership and management have since 2013 required its servers to take a written test every two weeks about the restaurant and its various food and drink options. However, she said the restaurant did not allow its wait staff to study for the written test while at work.
Rather, the restaurant would provide the servers with the written materials they needed to learn, requiring them to take the materials home to study. On average, the lawsuit alleged servers would each dedicate two to three hours per testing period to study the materials in preparation for the test.
The restaurant then would “purportedly assign work schedules based in part on how … servers perform on the test,” the lawsuit said. “While the amount of uncompensated time each employee studied the written materials was frequently about two to three hours every two weeks, the savings for Defendants (Lawry’s) is significant.”
The lawsuit said this action has cost the servers unpaid wages, in violation of laws requiring overtime and minimum wage pay.
“The net effect of Defendants’ policies and practices, instituted and approved by company managers, is that Defendants willfully failed to pay minimum wage and overtime compensation to Plaintiff and others similarly situated, and willfully failed to keep accurate time records to save payroll costs,” the lawsuit said. “Defendants thus enjoyed ill-gained profits at the expense of their hourly employees.”
The lawsuit did not indicate precisely how many employees might be included as additional plaintiffs under the putative class action lawsuit. But the complaint asked the court to create a class including anyone who worked for Lawry’s in Illinois since Nov. 11, 2013, and who were required to study for the job duties test at home, off the clock. The plaintiffs said they expected the total number of employees to exceed 40, allowing the lawsuit to proceed as a collective action.
The complaint asked the court to award Rapai and the class “all unpaid minimum wages and overtime wages they earned, plus statutory penalties,” and attorney fees.
The lawsuit arises in the wake of recent decisions in Chicago federal court and elsewhere addressing the question of how much additional compensation, if any, restaurant owners owe table servers for duties that may go beyond the core duties of their jobs.
For instance, recently the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found a chain of Chicago area pancake houses don’t need to pay servers extra for requiring them to chop food, make coffee, dust decorations and fixtures in the restaurant, and perform other duties they said were in addition to their core job responsibilities. The judges in that case said the additional duties were “related” closely enough to their jobs to allow the restaurants to sidestep additional scrutiny under the law.
Those additional duties, however, were performed at the restaurant, while on the clock, whereas in this case, plaintiffs alleged the restaurant required them to work at home, off the clock.
In addition to its Chicago site, Lawry’s operates three other restaurants under The Prime Rib brand, including in Las Vegas, Dallas and Beverly Hills, Calif.