Saturday, December 22, 2012

Broward County Debates Food Trucks: Restaurant Owner Wants Them Banned!

Joey Scuotto, a commissioner with a restaurant down the street from City Hall, has said he wants an outright ban on gourmet food trucks citywide.

"We have so many restaurants struggling to stay afloat in Sunrise," he told the Sun Sentinel. "I see it as a disadvantage to the businesses that the food trucks come in here."

Talk of a ban has sparked an outcry from local food truck owners and onlookers irked by what they call an attempt to stamp out competition.

Some argue a ban on food trucks would be downright illegal.

"The government is not allowed to make protectionist laws that protect one business over another," said Justin Pearson, executive director of the Institute for Justice, Florida Chapter. "That's unconstitutional."

On Dec. 6, Pearson sent commissioners a letter saying the civil liberties law firm has already filed suits challenging laws in Hialeah, Chicago and El Paso, Texas that restrict vendors from operating within a certain distance of their brick-and-mortar competitors.

A Sunrise resident came to City Hall on Tuesday to admonish Scuotto for using his office to try to stifle competition.

"Let the little guy have a chance," said the woman, who declined to give her name. "I think they should be allowed to flourish."

With a red face and raised voice, Scuotto told the woman the city already has a ban on food trucks and he "can't wait" until Jan. 8, when city officials are expected to debate the issue.

City spokeswoman Christine Pfeffer, however, said Sunrise doesn't have a true ban on food trucks. "We have a ban on outdoor sales," she said.

Pfeffer said a Sunrise business wanting to host a food truck event would be required to apply for a special permit.

Rolling restaurants have visited Sunrise during the past two years, but none have been cited because city officials found out after the fact, Pfeffer said.

"Unless you catch someone, you can't cite them," she said.

Robb Muise, a food truck operator from Oakland Park, says he is keeping a close eye on what happens in Sunrise. He plans to get a group of food truck operators to attend the upcoming commission meeting to protest an all-out ban.

Ryan Olesky, a Fort Lauderdale resident who tends bar at a downtown Hollywood restaurant, emailed the Sun Sentinel to accuse Scuotto of being un-American.

"Just another example of a lawmaker doing something for personal gain," he wrote.

Even the Greater Sunrise Chamber of Commerce opposes a ban on food truck events in Sunrise, says executive director Mike Jacobs.

Citing South Florida's thriving food truck industry, Jacobs said Sunrise would be missing out if it banned them altogether.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

South Beach Bar Girls Trial Ends In Convictions

As if he saw it coming, a federal judge warned he would not tolerate any outburst while the verdicts were read for four men accused of directing a bunch of “bar girls” to seduce and swindle customers at Russian-style clubs in South Beach.
But as soon as the Miami jury found three of the defendants guilty— and the judge ordered them immediately into custody Thursday — the mothers, wives and daughters started wailing.

U.S. District Judge Robert Scola called in federal marshals to escort the defendants out, while court security officers tried to control the situation.

“Let me hug my mom,” Albert Takhalov told one of the security officers, who tried to separate the mother, who wouldn’t let go.

And so the trial of the so-called B-girls came to a tearful end. The jury convicted Takhalov, Stanislav Pavlenko and Isaac Feldman of conspiring to fleece hundreds of thousands of dollars from dozens of male patrons by racking up bogus bills for champagne, vodka and caviar on their credit cards at the defendants’ seven Miami Beach clubs.

A fourth defendant, Siavash Zargari, who did business with Takhalov at a Washington Avenue lounge, was acquitted. “I feel good,” the South Beach resident said outside the courtroom with his attorney, Bruce Fleisher. “Justice is right.”

The jury reached its unanimous guilty verdicts on a variety of conspiracy, wire fraud and money-laundering charges after deliberating for five days following an 11-week trial that zigged and zagged with tales about Miami Beach’s underground bar scene. The panel also issued acquittals on numerous wire fraud offenses involving credit transactions, and cleared Takhalov of bribing a U.S. immigration official to bring the bar girls from Eastern Europe.

Still, Scola ordered the three convicted men into custody until their sentencings because he found that they gave testimony that “I don’t believe was honest.’’

The 12-person jury heard testimony from an admitted Russian mobster who organized the Miami Beach club racket; a few bar girls who lured male customers from swank hotels like the Delano to the private bars; a former Fox TV weatherman who was taken for $43,000 over two nights; and an undercover Miami Beach police officer who posed as a dirty cop and worked as a bouncer for the clubs while recording the illicit activity.

The puppet master behind the scam: Alec “Oleg” Simchuk, 46, a Russian native and naturalized U.S. citizen who testified in October about his partners and associates.

Simchuk, an admitted Russian mafioso who pleaded guilty before trial, testified that he modeled the South Beach clubs after his former bars in Latvia and Estonia. He said he illegally brought many of the same young women who had worked for him there to South Florida.

The undercover officer, Luis King, was caught on his own tape describing “American black girls” as “pigs, pigs, pigs, pigs” in a late-night chat with a bar girl at the Steel Toast lounge. The sensational evidence may not have been relevant, but it worried prosecutors Richard Gregorie and Michael Thakur because of its potential impact on the racially mixed jury.

The four defendants took the witness stand to fight the fraud charges, which is highly unusual during a trial. It backfired for all but Zargari. His testimony ended up serving two purposes, as he deftly demonstrated his innocence while blaming Takhalov for contaminating their lounge, Tangia Club, with bar girls and credit-card fraud.

“I was scammed by Takhalov and set up by the FBI,” he said after his acquittal.

In 2010, Miami Beach police and the FBI launched an undercover investigation into the “B-girl” network after customers complained to their credit card companies about the outlandish bar tabs.

Last year, a total of 18 defendants were charged in the fraud conspiracy. Twelve defendants, mostly women, have since pleaded guilty. Almost all have already served short prison sentences.

Standing trial since October: Pavlenko, 41, Takhalov, 31, Zargari, 48, and Feldman, 51, who live in the Aventura, Sunny Isles Beach and Miami Beach areas.

Pavlenko’s lawyer, Roderick Vereen, said he would seek a new trial, alleging that the weatherman lied during his testimony.

Takhalov’s attorney, Albert Levin, said he was “disappointed” in the jury’s verdicts. “Although my client was acquitted on most of the charges, we couldn’t call this a victory.’’

Feldman’s attorney, Myles Malman, expressed the same sentiment, saying his client was a “good and decent man” who was a minority investor in one of Simchuk’s clubs, Stars Lounge. “He was tricked into an investment by a con man whose testimony was one of the most unbelievable I have heard in my 40 years of practicing law,” Malman said.

The three defendants found guilty now face up to 20 years each in prison, though the punishment is likely to be substantially less because of the relatively small losses incurred by their nearly 90 victims. The losses came to between $400,000 and $1 million, with most of the profits going to Simchuk and the other investors and 20 percent to the bar girls.

A fifth defendant, Kristina Takhalov, who worked as a bartender, pleaded guilty during the trial to a few wire-fraud charges.

On Thursday, she was red-faced from crying after the guilty verdicts were read for Albert Takhalov, her husband.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Florida Stone Crab Shortage; Expect Higher Prices

Despite rocketing prices for stone-crab claws, many Florida Keys commercial fishermen have nearly given up on the season only 2 months old.

"We may see record prices but also record pain," said Gary Graves, general manager of Keys Fisheries in Marathon. "Prices don't mean anything if you can't catch anything."
Harvests since shortly after the season opening Oct. 15 have been "as bad as I can remember during my 45 years in the business," Graves said. "It's just bleak."
Keys Fisheries, one of the state's leading wholesalers for stone crabs, has laid off half of its production staff, maybe 20 people, Graves said.

"We hate to do it to our people but we're probably not finished," he said. "Right now, a big day for us is 1,000 pounds [of claws]. It should be around 15,000 pounds. We're doing nothing."

Keys Fisheries has raised its dockside prices paid to fishermen several times to encourage fishermen to keep their traps in the water.

Graves said it costs a fisherman about $1,200 in fuel, labor and other expenses to make a day's trip. The fish house's current prices are $9 per pound for medium-size claws and $17 per pound for the coveted jumbos.
"Our wholesale sales prices are higher than that and retail is through the roof," Graves said. "But we can't fill the orders we have."

A Marathon community group recently canceled the organization's annual stone crab feast for members because no claws were to be found.

The season runs until May 15.

Last season, Monroe County produced about 1.1 million pounds of legal-size claws, accounting for a large portion of Florida's total 2.67 million-pound harvest worth an estimated $23.6 million to the commercial fleet.
About 1,000 people statewide are licensed to fish traps for stone crabs. Only the claws are kept. Historically, stone-crab harvests have topped three million pounds of claws.

"The last two years were good and the recruitment looked normal," Graves said. "The first round of trap pulling was fine but it went downhill from there — like falling off a cliff."
Fishermen and researchers are baffled.

"Blame it on global warming, blame it on BP [Deepwater Horizon oil spill], blame it on Mother Nature," Graves said.
"Everybody's got an idea but nobody can say why. It's probably a combination of a bunch of things."

News reports from stone-crab fleets farther up the Florida Gulf Coast suggest an octopus population explosion. Crabs are a favorite food of octopus, which are smart enough to get into traps.

"We've seen more octopus in the 6- to 8-pound range, which is abnormal," Graves said. State experts have suggested warm winters may have triggered the octopus boom.
"Things could turn around," Graves said, "but realistically the chances of it happening this season are slim."

Friday, December 14, 2012

Seafood Fraud: Is That Dover Sole You Are Eating?

There's a good chance that the white tuna sashimi or the Dover Sole served up at your favorite Manhattan chinese restaurant joint isn't from England at all.

In fact, 94% of the fish labeled as white tuna in New York turned out to be escolar, a type of snake mackerel with a toxin linked to digestive problems, according to an investigation by conservation and advocacy group Oceana.

DNA tests of 142 seafood samples taken from New York grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues showed that 39% were mislabeled as different species, according to Oceana.

Earlier Oceana tests showed a 31% fraud rate in Miami, 48% in Boston and 55% in Los Angeles.

Out of 81 retail outlets probed in New York -- which included shops in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Commack, Scarsdale, Hudson and Edgewater, N.J. -- 58 featured improperly tagged items, the group said.

Small markets had a 40% fraud rate, it said, while 12% of items purchased at national chains were mislabeled. Each of the 16 sushi bars targeted served fish that didn’t match its menu description.

Seafood purported to be red snapper turned out to be tilapia, white bass, ocean perch and even tilefish, which sits on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's do-not-eat list for pregnant and nursing women because of its high mercury content.

The U.S. currently imports more than 90% of its seafood.

"With an increasingly complex and obscure seafood supply chain, plus lagging federal oversight and inspection of rising seafood imports, it is difficult to identify who along the supply chain perpetrates the fraud," according to the Oceana report.

In October, celebrity chefs such as Mario Batali, Rick Bayless and Thomas Keller joined 500 other restaurant owners on an Oceana petition to stop seafood fraud.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Labor Rebellion: Fast-Food Workers, Inspired By Walmart Strikers, Demand Higher Wages

Last month, workers at hundreds of Walmart locations nationwide staged protests—many on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year—demanding the retail giant pay higher wages.

Walmart downplayed the rare show of rebellion, saying it involved only a fraction of its 1.6 million U.S. employees. But the protests, which garnered a slew of media attention, both shed light on a pressing issue and represented one of the most significant labor actions against the big-box store in its history.

The protests also inspired another group of low-wage workers to stage their own. Last week, about 200 fast-food workers in New York City walked out of their workplaces—chains affected included Burger King, Wendy's and McDonald's—to demand a "living wage" of $15 an hour and an end to the practice of keeping workers on part-time hours to avoid giving them benefits or overtime. The employees also want to form a union for the city's estimated 50,000 fast-food workers to negotiate pay and benefits.

One protester was fired but reinstated after community leaders, including New York City council members, persuaded the management at the Fulton Mall Wendy's in Brooklyn to take her back.

Jonathan Westin, organizing director of the nonprofit New York Communities for Change and one of the organizers of the latest protests, said the Black Friday strikes at Walmart inspired the fast-food protesters to put aside their fears of losing their jobs. "Workers saw that you could step out and be courageous and take on your bosses," Westin said. The group had been talking to fast-food workers since the summer about working conditions and unionizing, but last week was the first major demonstration.

Most fast-food employees, he noted, work part time and are paid minimum wage ($7.25 an hour), so they don't make enough money to support their families. "Many have to rely on public assistance," Westin said. "The taxpayers are fronting the bill for what these multibillion corporations are refusing to pay in wages and benefits."

The Walmart and fast-food protests are remarkable because low-wage employees are often the most vulnerable and easily replaced in the workforce, and so they rarely publicly complain about working conditions. Angela Cornell, director of the Labor Law Clinic at Cornell University Law School, said it's unusual to see such workers striking, especially when the unemployment rate is still high.

"These workers are under an enormous amount of financial strain right now," Cornell said. "Wages have been stagnant … while everything else is going up for them. It's been going on for so long now that ... they're willing to take the risk, because the situation is increasingly intolerable."

Their frustration might also be bubbling up from longer-term economic changes in the country. The U.S. workforce's average salary used to rise at almost exactly the same rate as its productivity, which meant the more we produced, the better we were paid. That link began to break in the 1980s, and now, though U.S. workers are more productive than ever, wages have been stagnant for years. A study from the National Employment Law Project notes that the minimum wage is worth 30 percent less than in 1968. Meanwhile, corporate profits are at record highs.

"They are long overdue for improvements in wages," Cornell said. The issue has become more pressing since the recession, as nearly 60 percent of all jobs created since 2008 have paid hourly wages of $13.83 or less.

The economic argument for these low wages is that people like cheap hamburgers, pizza and other fast food, and that higher wages would mean higher prices that could put franchises—most independently owned—out of business. And, because the jobs require minimal education, owners don't need to pay more to fill the jobs.

But at a crowded rally organized by unions and community groups in New York's busy Times Square on Thursday, mayoral hopefuls Bill de Blasio, New York City's public advocate, and Bill Thompson repudiated that line of thinking. They threw their support behind the effort for higher wages for fast-food workers and other low-income New Yorkers, saying such employees should unionize and demand a "living wage." De Blasio said New York has become "a tale of two cities," with the city's poor workers increasingly living far away from Manhattan's elite, unable to live in the city where they work in essential jobs.
"You can't raise a family on minimum wage," Pamela Flood, a Burger King worker with three children, said onstage at the rally. "With food and diapers, my paycheck is gone after two days. We need a change."

Many labor experts, however, see an uphill battle to forming a fast-food workers union. Not only are these employees regarded as replaceable, but also the franchises are operated by a patchwork of owners and employee turnover is high.
"It's very difficult to do," said Professor Gary Chaisen, a labor expert at Clark University. "They're extremely vulnerable. They're hesitant to join unions, because they're worried about losing their jobs."

That fear is rational, because U.S. law allows managers to fire employees if their work stoppages affect the company's bottom line. But it is also illegal for employers to discourage workers from seeking to unionize by threatening them with consequences.

Monica Bielski Boris, a labor expert and assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said perhaps fast-food workers would have better luck organizing into a nontraditional union, like the "hiring hall" model used in the construction industry. Businesses looking to hire must go to the hiring hall to find workers and negotiate certain wages and benefits in advance.

Felicito Tapia, a deli worker at a Hot & Crusty bakery on 14th Street who attended the rally, said he attempted to form a union at his store last spring, mainly to get paid sick days and a higher wage. "With $7.25, you can't do anything. That salary is nothing," Tapia said, while holding a sign demanding a $15 hourly wage for fast-food workers.

Tapia has worked at different Hot & Crusty locations for 10 years, but he has never been able to take off a holiday, including Christmas, which is something he would want to negotiate if he ever successfully unionizes.

Tapia's unionizing efforts failed, but workers at another Hot & Crusty location on the Upper East Side succeeded after temporarily shutting down their store in protest. The workers there signed a union contract at the end of October that guarantees them paid sick days and holidays—a benefit the vast majority of food workers in New York City do not have.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Florida Employment Lawyer Group Calls for Abolishing Human Rights Commission

A statewide association of employment attorneys in Florida released a report today accusing the Florida Commission on Human Relations (FCHR) of being dysfunctional, biased and incompetent and calling for the agency to be fixed or abolished. The press release pasted below describes the highly critical study prepared by the Florida Chapter of the National Employment Lawyers Association that calls the FCHR a highly politicized “rogue agency” and a “destructive and malignant force” that has trampled on the legal rights of government and private-sector employees for years, with staff and leaders that have acted illegally or ineptly. The link to the article is here

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Wage Theft Law Passed in Broward County - Call It Whatever You Like

A controversial law that would empower workers to easily go after their employers for pay was approved Tuesday after two hours of debate by the Broward County Commission. The law was denounced by the business community, who over the course of months called it hostile, insulting and unnecessary. They won a consolation — the law's terminology was changed from "wage theft'' to "non-payment of earned wages.''

A similar political landscape in Palm Beach County scuttled a wage theft law there. Miami-Dade is the only county in Florida that had the law, officials said. Broward became the second by a 7-2 vote, with Commissioners Stacy Ritter and Chip LaMarca voting no.

"Most of our business owners are honest people — the vast majority,'' said LaMarca, complaining about a new level of bureaucracy.

"It's those that aren't that are causing the problem,'' responded Broward Commissioner Kristin Jacobs, the law's sponsor.

Jacobs said her son fell victim to underpayment when he worked for a business that didn't pay workers at all. They earned only tips. Since she proposed the law, she said she's heard about a lot of workers who have been ripped off.

"Those are the companies that need to know that wage theft is not OK in Broward County,'' she said.

Though commissioners conceded that there are laws already on the books to protect employees from working without proper pay, they said they wanted to make it easier, and provide a way for employees to recover their pay without having to enter a courthouse.

"Courts are not the most friendly place for people,'' said Commissioner Ilene Lieberman.

Wage theft occurs when workers are paid below the minimum wage, are not paid overtime, are forced to work off the clock, have their time cards altered or aren't paid for work performed.

Under the law, employees who believe they are owed $60 or more for work done in Broward County will be able to turn to the county for help, as long as the employer isn't the state, federal government or an Indian tribe. The case will go to a county hearing officer for a decision.

A victorious employee would get back wages, plus the possibility of damages up to the amount of the unpaid wages. The employer would also have to pay the county its administrative costs, and pay the employee's attorney fees, if there were any.

Before filing the complaint, the employee would write a letter to the employer outlining how much is owed. If the paycheck showed up within 15 days, the complaint wouldn't be filed.

The law becomes effective in January. Commissioners will vote on a finalized version of the ordinance later this year.

Labor groups supported the law, and said landscapers and musicians are among those left hanging by those who owe them.

But the law, estimated to cost the county $175,000 a year in staffing, was heavily lobbied against by business groups, who suggested the county give money to Legal Aid to defend unpaid workers instead.

Skeet Jernigan, president of the Community & Economic Development Council, said the evidence is clear that employees already are covered by existing laws, and for businesses, this will be "just one more level of compliance.''

"I think they've made a mistake,'' he said after the vote Tuesday.

Sick Days and Employment in Miami - Workers Need A Break

In Miami-Dade County, many service workers punch a time clock despite having a cold or flu, back spasms or migraines. Without paid sick time, they can’t afford to stay home and lose wages — and possibly their jobs.
A proposed county ordinance that would require all employers to offer earned sick time could change that.

“In a community where tourism reigns supreme, it is important that we protect the workers who support one of our main sources of revenue,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan, who is sponsoring the ordinance and has asked that it be put on the commission agenda for preliminary approval on Nov. 20.

Jordan spoke Wednesday, at a rally on the plaza outside Miami-Dade’s Government Center, amid more than 30 service workers who waved colorful placards with such sayings as “No Sick Time = Public Health Risks.”

Brought together by a coalition of labor, community and faith leaders, the workers chanted “Paid Sick Days,” as the song Ain’t No Stopping Us Now, blared.

Mishell Warner, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Local 1363, representing support workers at Jackson Memorial Hospital, said 45 percent of workers in Miami-Dade do not earn paid sick days, including 88 percent of restaurant workers. The figures come from a study released this summer by ROC United, a public policy think tank.

“Latinos and women are the hardest hit,” she said.

The issue affects public health, because sick workers make others ill. And when a cold turns into pneumonia and the worker goes to the emergency room, it drives up the cost of healthcare, said Martha Baker, a registered nurse and president of SEIU Local 1991, representing doctors at nurses at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Mandating earned sick time is “the right thing to do for public health and for the economy,” she said.

Over the years, other U.S. cities, including San Francisco, have passed ordinances mandating paid sick time. A study conducted in San Francisco in February by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that the actual cost of paid sick leave was just under 1 percent of wages, said Santiago Leon, employee benefits advisor with ACC Insurance Brokers and founding chairman of Miami-Dade County Worksite Wellness Committee.

So for a worker earning the Florida minimum wage of $7.67 an hour, the extra cost is less than 8 cents an hour, and for those who earn tips and make $4.65 an hour, the cost is less than a nickel, Leon said.
It’s too early to say how businesses will respond.

“We will review the language once it is presented,” said Lauren Searcy, spokeswoman for the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association based in Tallahassee.

“Earned paid sick leave is not a handout. It’s just a matter of creating paid leave equality for our service industry workers,” Jordan said, at the conclusion of the rally. “Let’s make sure that our workers on the frontline working hard everyday for this community are able to use earned paid leave without fear of losing their jobs.”
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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Florida Unemployment Benefits: Not What They Use To Be

Getting an unemployment check in Florida is frustrating ordeal for many

When 65-year-old Raymond Togyer isn’t polishing his resume or cold calling potential employers, he’s spending hours trying, unsuccessfully, to navigate Florida’s labyrinthine unemployment compensation system.Togyer — who was laid off for the first time in his adult life from a high-paying civil engineering job in June — has spent the last seven weeks sending and resending letters, staying on hold for hours and checking state websites, all to no avail.

He is one of hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Floridians flummoxed by what has become the most tightfisted unemployment compensation system in the nation.
“They told me that I was eligible and that I was going to be getting $275 a week,” said the Togyer, of Fort Lauderdale . “That was seven weeks ago. To this day I have not received anything. I’m draining my savings to pay my bills.”

Critics say Gov. Rick Scott and Florida’s Legislature are behind a multipronged effort to restrict payments to eligible Floridians. A required 45-question “skills review” and an online-only application system have combined to restrict thousands of applicants from receiving aid. The U.S. Labor Department is investigating the complaints. A spokesman told the Herald/Times that Florida is cooperating with their inquiry, but they would not comment further.

Scott’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but in the past he has touted the required 45-question “skills review” as a commonsense reform intended to create a more skilled workforce.
Whatever the intention, the impact is clear: Hundreds of thousands of unemployed Floridians have been cut off from a safety net system for those who find themselves suddenly without income.

Florida’s “recipiency rate” — the proportion of unemployed people who actually receive jobless benefits— is 16 percent, the country’s lowest. Only one in three applicants for unemployment compensation in Florida receives any money, ranking the state dead last among the 50 states.

“The cumulative impact of these changes is that the process of filing an initial claim for benefits is much more difficult for the average Floridian,” the National Employment Law Project wrote in a recent complaint to U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

The unemployment compensation system is designed as a form of insurance that businesses pay into to help fund temporary assistance for employees who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. In Florida, the average weekly check is about $230. Currently, about 800,000 are unemployed.

Scott and the Legislature overhauled Florida’s system in 2011, adding a long list of requirements and making all applicants apply online. The law required applicants to take a 45-question skills assessment, contact five employers every week and reduced the maximum number of weeks from 26 to 23.

Scott pushed more changes this year, rebranding the program as Reemployment Assistance and cutting the business taxes that fund the program by $800 million over three years.

The program is mired in debt, and the transition has been anything but smooth.
Frustrated applicants complain of misinformation on the state’s website and customer service phone lines that can be tied up for days on end.

A Herald/Times reporter tried several times over the course of a week to reach the state’s customer service department for jobless claims. Several times an automated message said, “We are currently experiencing high call volumes. An agent is not available at this time,” and then the line went dead.

On one occasion, the recorded voice said: “There are currently 399 calls in front of you.”
James Miller, a spokesperson for the Department of Economic Opportunity, said tied-up phone lines are not a problem, and the average hold time is about seven or eight minutes.

“We have no record of any delays or problems with distributing Reemployment Assistance payments to claimants,” he said. “We also are not aware of any issues with the 800 claim line.”

Togyer said he has spent nearly two months trying to get someone to tell him what is going on with his application for assistance.

He applied online shortly after being laid off from his position with Shah, Drotos & Associates, a Pompano Beach engineering consultancy. He was told he was eligible for about $275 per week, and waited patiently for his first check. After three weeks, there was no check and he tried to call DEO to find out about the day. It took him several days to reach an agent, who then informed him that he was required to fill out a 45-question skills assessment to measure his skills.

Togyer said he saw nothing about a skills test while he was applying, and received no warning that his application was incomplete. He has now completed the skills review, but has yet to receive a single payment, he said.

“I’ve been paying into it for 37 years. This is the first time I claim unemployment and they’re giving me a big runaround,” said Togyer, who recently began collecting Social Security benefits. “They’re treating me like I’m an illegal alien or something.”

Scott regularly touts the drop in the number of people receiving unemployment benefits as evidence that Florida’s economy is improving.

“The number of people on unemployment has gone from 568,000 to 320,000 people,” he said this month at a gathering of conservatives in Jacksonville.
What he doesn’t mention is federal data showing that more than 250,000 Floridians have been kicked out of the program during Scott’s tenure, because their benefits ran out.

Hundreds of thousands of additional applicants have been denied access to benefits, because they did not meet strict new requirements that Scott signed into law.

Meanwhile, job creation in Florida continues to lag behind the national pace, countering Scott’s argument that the Sunshine State is a beacon of economic growth and dependency on unemployment benefits is falling as a result.

With slowing job creation numbers, Scott has pivoted to highlighting the shrinking unemployment compensation rolls. Though the decline in the number of people receiving unemployment checks is clearly not an accurate barometer of job creation, Scott may point to such numbers during high profile appearances at the Republican National Convention next week.

“I’m pretty consistent in what I talk about every day,” Scott said this month, indicating that he would not veer from his standard talking points during the convention. “I want to make sure people can get a job in Florida.”
Roberta May, 50, of Palm Harbor, has been trying for two months to add herself to the state’s unemployment compensation rolls. After her customer service job in Oldsmar was shipped to the Philippines in June, she immediately applied for jobless benefits.

She said her file got passed along to an adjudicator who would not return her phone calls.
After spending hours on hold and sending several unanswered emails to DEO to find out about the application, May learned Tuesday that her file had been passed on to another adjudicator who was starting over from scratch.

“They’ve lost all the information they had a month ago,” she said.
The processing delays and understaffed phone lines come at a time when Florida’s unemployment insurance program is deeply in the red. Because the demand for benefits has outpaced the revenue coming in from business taxes, Florida has had to borrow more than $2.7 billion from the federal government. That debt load increased this year when the Legislature approved $800 million in tax cuts on the businesses taxes that fund the program.

May is in debt as well. She has run through her savings and has had to borrow money from her parents and her boyfriend to stave off homelessness.

“I would’ve just been out on the street if I didn’t have help from the parents,” she said, fighting back tears. “You know these days, with everybody struggling, it doesn’t take much.”

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Workers rally in downtown Miami to demand a higher minimum wage !

Three years after completing a tour of duty in Iraq, Marcus Edgerson is poor

The 24-year-old veteran supports his wife and 4-month-old son working part-time at the Walmart in Hallandale Beach. He earns $7.70 an hour — three cents more than Florida’s minimum wage

“I fought for my country so we could live well, but then I come home and we’re living in poverty,” he said. “I can’t take care of my family, and that’s not right.

Edgerson joined a rally at downtown Miami’s Bayfront Park to mark the third anniversary of the last time Congress raised the federal minimum wage. About 200 people turned up for the demonstration — one of many that took place across the country Tuesday in support of proposals by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., to increase the national minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9.80 by 2014. Their proposals would also index the minimum wage to inflation.

Florida’s minimum wage is higher than the national one, and is already linked to inflation. If the proposed federal increase is adopted, the national minimum wage would surpass and replace Florida’s.
Such an increase would raise the annual pay for a full-time minimum wage employee from about $15,000 to $20,000, according to the Economic Policy Institute. This would put an extra $100 a week in the pockets of the 20 million Americans who earn minimum wage.

The most common argument in support of the measure is to compensate those at the lower end of the pay scale more for their work so that they have money to spend, thus increasing demand for goods and services. The money spent on higher wages for the poor would immediately “recirculate back into our economy,” said Eric Brakken, director of 1Miami, a collection of community groups that organized the rally.

Opponents of the proposal say that increasing the minimum wage would make it harder to create jobs in an economy where unemployment is still uncomfortably high. If workers must be paid more, fewer might be hired, they say.

Brakken dismissed this argument, saying that economists should be concerned with the quality of jobs that are created, not just the number of positions. Many of the janitors and other low-wage workers at the rally on Tuesday told stories of losing their full-time jobs with benefits so that companies could take on more part-time workers who would cost employers less.

Edgerson, the veteran, said if the minimum wage were increased, it would help him buy the basics for his young family. At the top of his list is a driver’s license, which will cost him $250 since he was fined for not having the car insurance he couldn’t afford. Without a driver’s license, he has little chance of getting a better job, and he has to work for Walmart for a full year before he can be hired full time

“It’s frustrating that I don’t get paid much for my hard work,” he said. “I like to help people, and they appreciate the customer service. But the company, they don’t appreciate the work I do for them. . . . If I were not out there, they wouldn’t make their money.”

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Saturday, May 5, 2012

AT&T to pay Muslim woman $5M in harassment case

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A former Kansas City woman who converted to Islam in 2005 said she was harassed for years at AT&T, and that the abuse boiled over in 2008 when her boss snatched her head scarf and exposed her hair.

A Jackson County jury on Thursday awarded Susann Bashir $5 million in punitive damages in her discrimination lawsuit, along with $120,000 in lost wages and other actual damages.

The Kansas City Star reported Saturday the award appears to be the largest jury verdict for a workplace discrimination case in Missouri history.

Bashir said in court documents that her work environment became hostile immediately after she converted, with her co-workers making harassing comments about her religion and referring to her hijab as "that thing on her head."

"I was shocked. I thought, 'What is going on?'" she told the newspaper. "Nobody ever cared what I wore before. Nobody ever cared what religion I was before."

Bashir worked at AT&T's office in Kansas City for 10 years as a fiber optics network builder before being fired from her $70,000-a-year job. She claimed she endured religious discrimination nearly every day of the final three years she worked there, including being asked if she was going to blow up the building and being called a "towelhead" and a terrorist.

AT&T said Friday it disagrees with the verdict and plans to appeal.

Despite the jury's award, Bashir stands to receive much less than $5 million because Missouri law caps such awards at five times the actual damage amount, plus attorney fees.

Amy Coopman, Bashir's lawyer, said attorney fees will be determined later by the judge.

The previous largest such verdict came in 2009, when Mohamed Alhalabi, an Arab-American Muslim, was awarded $811,949 in St. Louis County Circuit Court in a case against the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

That same year, a Jonesboro, Ark., jury ordered AT&T to pay $1.3 million to two former employees fired for attending a Jehovah's Witnesses convention.

Bashir said she called an employee help line in March 2005 and asked the company to provide sensitivity training for her co-workers.

"It was a worthless call," she said. "Nothing ever changed."

The harassment continued and in March 2008, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission launched an investigation after she filed a complaint.

She said that made some workers angry and led to the final encounter with her boss.

Bashir said she became so stressed out that she couldn't return to work. She asked that her boss be removed or that she be transferred, but neither happened.

She was fired after not returning to work for nine months.

"By firing me, they stole my ability to work at a job I liked," Bashir said.

She said the incident was hard on her mentally and physically and tore her family apart. She is going through a divorce, and in October she and her daughter moved to Anchorage, Alaska, where she works as an apartment manager.

"I have mixed feelings," Bashir said. "I'm happy not to be reporting to that management structure. But it's hard in this economy to find a job with that level of compensation. I didn't want to lose my job, because I felt I was doing good work."

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Barton G. restaurants to pay more than $28,000 in back wages


Barton G. restaurants has agreed to pay $28,027 in back wages to 99 employees following investigations by the U.S. Department of Labor.
The government found minimum wage, overtime and record-keeping violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act took place at all three of Barton G.’s Miami locations: Barton G. The Restaurant in South Beach, Prelude by Barton G. inside the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami and The Villa By Barton G. in the former Versace Mansion.
This is likely to be the first of several cases about to come down against South Beach restaurateurs.
Investigators from the Department of Labor’s Miami office found violations including failure to properly pay tipped employees, such as servers and bartenders, for all hours worked. Payroll records and interviews show that many employees earned wages below the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour.
Barton G. also failed to properly calculate and compensate tipped employees for all overtime hours beyond 40 hours per week. In addition, record-keeping violations meant some employees were paid a percentage of sales, which is a commission and not a tip.
Following the investigations, Barton G. agreed to pay all back wages, change its payroll systems and maintain future compliance with the federal law.
Owner Barton G. Weiss said any errors were not intentional, but simply computerized calculation errors.
“If we were wrong, we were wrong,” Weiss said. “I’ll take the hit for it. They came up with a number and I agreed to pay.”

Comment by Lowell J. Kuvin, Esq.
However, what the article does not say is that the employees who were not paid correctly have a choice of accepting what DOL thinks they are owed, or, hiring a law firm to recover their lost wages. What is the difference? A law firm such as the Law Office of Lowell J. Kuvin, LLC can ask the court for the wages you are owed as well as an equal amount in liquidated damages, while DOL will not. To put it another way, if you are owed $350 in unpaid wages, we ask for $700 plus attorney fees and costs. In my opinion, if a person gets caught walking out of a store without paying for an item, you shouldn't be allowed to just pay for the item, and walk away. What would keep you from doing the same thing again and again?

Contact us today for a free assessment of your case.

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Friday, April 20, 2012

South Florida Restaurants Stay Hungry for Workers

 South Florida saw unemployment drop last month and payrolls grow. But the gains don’t compare to the streak in the restaurant industry.

Read more here:

At Juvia, South Beach’s celebrated new rooftop restaurant, the butter-poached crab appetizer sells for almost $40. Chocolate eel sauce graces the menu, as does apple soup. But for all the exotic dishes and rave reviews, executive chef Sunny Oh still pines for at least one crucial ingredient each day: a full payroll.

“It’s been difficult to find quality people,’’ said Oh, a veteran of South Beach’s dining scene after a decade at the Shore Club’s Nobu Miami. “The good restaurants in Miami are always looking for people. Always — even during the recession.”
South Florida restaurants stay hungry for workers

South Florida saw unemployment drop last month and payrolls grow. But the gains don’t compare to the streak in the restaurant industry.

Friday brought a fairly positive jobs report for South Florida, with unemployment rates dropping and payrolls expanding in many sectors in March. But even with numbers improving, almost no major industry can boast of the kind of hiring streak under way in Miami-Dade restaurants: 28 straight months of job growth.

The industry last saw job losses in November 2009, during the depths of the global financial crisis. Since then, about 10,000 restaurants jobs have been added, putting the dining industry on a faster recovery pace than the labor market as a whole. The latest numbers have restaurant jobs growing at 6 percent, while overall Miami-Dade payrolls were up just over 2 percent in the latest local jobs report released Friday.

Restaurants’ standout performance isn’t the kind of good news economists like to tout in a healthy recovery. Despite improving unemployment levels and hiring rates, analysts see growth in low-paying service jobs masking trouble in better-paying sectors, including construction, manufacturing and white-collar professions like banking, accounting and law.

“I’m definitely concerned,’’ said Chris Lafakis, a Moody’s economist, who gave a “tepid thumbs up” to South Florida’s latest employment report. “The headline number looks good, but it’s discouraging not to see any growth in goods-producing industries.”

Broward actually saw its manufacturing industry begin to create jobs in 2012, with almost 3,000 new manufacturing positions added in March over the prior year. The four-month stretch of employment gains is the best for Broward manufacturing since the early 1990s.

But construction — a much bigger part of South Florida’s economy — continues its slide in both counties. Broward saw a loss of 2,800 jobs and Miami-Dade 2,000. The March numbers mean South Florida’s construction industry has been shedding jobs for four years and seven months. Employment is at about half what it was during the housing boom, amounting to a loss of about 62,000 construction jobs.

Gains in hospitality, healthcare and retail continued to drive the hiring recovery in March. Compared to a year ago, employers in Broward added 5,500 positions. In Miami-Dade, there were 23,400 new jobs.

Unemployment rates also showed progress. In Broward, the raw unemployment rate dropped from 7.9 percent to 7.5 percent, the lowest since December 2008. Miami-Dade’s seasonally adjusted rate showed unemployment at 10 percent in March, down from 10.3 percent in February. That’s the lowest since the summer of 2009. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics will provide a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for Broward and Florida’s other medium-sized counties later this month.

Florida saw the sharpest drop in its unemployment rate since the early 1990s, from 9.4 percent in February to 9 percent in March. The state added almost 11,000 jobs in March, about half of February’s gain.

Despite improving numbers, South Florida remains a rough place for job seekers. About 190,000 people are listed as unemployed in both counties. On Friday a pharmaceutical facility in Miami, PL Developments, disclosed mass layoffs, with 82 workers losing their jobs in June, according to state documents.

Improving unemployment rates are seen as feeding consumer confidence, which has been a boon to the dining and retail industries in recent years. A rebound in consumer spending helped bolster restaurant receipts shortly after the financial crisis ebbed in 2010. In July 2010, a tax Miami-Dade charges most mainland restaurants returned to record levels, after dropping 4 percent in 2008.

“Tourism has helped,’’ Robert Cruz, Miami-Dade’s economist, said of growing restaurant jobs. “But consumers are spending again. That’s why they’re more willing to go out to dinner.”

Broward’s restaurant industry isn’t large enough to get its own category in monthly job reports, but its hospitality sector accounted for 22 percent of the new jobs in March, behind retail and healthcare. In Miami-Dade, the restaurant industry’s two-plus years of hiring is second only to healthcare’s stunning record of flat or growing payrolls since June 2000.

Pastry chef Mayde Montesano found herself jobless in November when her employer at the time, Miami Beach’s Kane Steakhouse, abruptly closed. On Friday, Monstesano was back at work at Juvia, where she spent part of the morning preparing a stylized Snickers bar that includes coconut-lime ice cream

“I love it so far,’’ the 49-year-old said during a break. She talked to six restaurants before settling on Juvia for her next job. Though pastry-chef slots were hard to find, Montesano said openings were plentiful in kitchens throughout South Beach “There were a lot for line cooks,’’ she said.

Juan Carlos Barrera, owner of downtown’s La Moon, said business has been brisk in recent years at the Colombian hot dog restaurant. Job applications? Not so much.

“This last year has been really hard to find workers,’’ he said. “Kitchen, management, deliveries, waitresses, hostessing — everything.”

Friday, April 6, 2012

Update: Minnesota Waitress Gets to Keep $12,000 Tip

Updated: A Minnesota waitress has $12,000 to help pay her bills after claiming in a lawsuit that she was entitled to the money she turned over to police after a customer gave it to her.

Stacy Knutson of Moorhead, Minn., said in the Clay County suit that more than 90 days had passed without anyone claiming the money and it should be returned to her, report the Associated Press and ABC News. Police said the money smelled like marijuana and it was being held in a drug investigation.

On Thursday, Knutson’s lawyer, Craig Richie, said authorities decided to return the money, report Reuters and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Knutson received her check Thursday night.

According to the suit, a customer left the money for Knutson when she was working at the Fry’n Pan restaurant. The money was in a takeout box for another restaurant. Knutson’s suit said she tried to return the box to the customer, not knowing what it contained, and the customer said, “No, I am good, you keep it.” When Knutson opened the box, she saw it contained wads of bills.

Richie says his client gave the money to police because she didn’t want to be accused of doing anything wrong. When no one claimed it, Knutson decided the money really was a gift, Richie says. She suspects the donor was someone from her church who knew she was having financial troubles.

"The only thing that smells bad about this is that it's unfair," Richie told ABC before the settlement was announced.

Knutson plans to use the money to pay medical bills. She currently works full time at the Fry'n Pan and part time at two other jobs.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Minnesota Waitress Sues After Police Seize $12,000 'Tip'

Stacy Knutson, a struggling Minnesota waitress and mother of five, says she was searching for a "miracle" to help her family with financial problems.

But that "miracle" quickly came and went after police seized a $12,000 tip that was left at her table. Knutson filed a lawsuit in Clay County District Court stating that the money is rightfully hers. Police argue it is drug money.

Knutson was working at the Fryn' Pan in Moorhead, Minn., when, according to her attorney, Craig Richie, a woman left a to-go box from another restaurant on the table. Knutson followed the woman to her car to return the box to her.

"No I am good, you keep it," the woman said, according to the lawsuit.

Knutson did not know the woman and has not seen her since, Richie said. Knutson thought it was "strange" that the woman told her to keep it but she took it inside. The box felt too heavy to be leftovers, Ritchie said, so she opened it -- only to find bundles of cash wrapped in rubber bands.

"Even though I desperately needed the money as my husband and I have five children, I feel I did the right thing by calling the Moorhead Police," Knutson said in the lawsuit.

Police seized the money and originally told Knutson that if no one claimed it after 60 days, it was hers. She was later told 90 days, Richie said. When 90 days passed, Knutson was still without the $12,000.
Police told Knutson the money was being held as "drug money" and she would receive a $1,000 reward instead, the lawsuit states. Lt. Tory Jacobson of the Moorhead police said he could not disclose much information about the case because it is an ongoing investigation.

"With turning this money over to us, we initiated an investigation to determine whose money this is," Jacobson told ABC News. "The result has been a narcotics investigation."

Police argue that the money had a strong odor of marijuana and therefore falls under a law that allows for forfeiture of the money because it was in the proximity of a controlled substance, the lawsuit states. But there were no drugs in the box and Richie said he believes this law is not being used correctly.

"Because it was in contact with drugs somewhere along the line, it's somehow drug money," Richie said. "This isn't drug money."

A police dog also performed a sniff test on the money and, according to the dog's handler, discovered an odor.

Two of Knutson's co-workers, along with her son Brandon, were at the Fryn' Pan the night she discovered the money. Her co-workers say they did not smell marijuana.

"I know the smell of marijuana," Nickolas Fronning, a line cook at the Fryn' Pan, said in an affidavit. "I can also assure you that there was no smell of marijuana on the bills or coming from the box."

There was nothing suspicious in the restaurant when the money was found, co-workers said. They don't why it was given to Knutson.

"She was just in the right place at the right time," Tracy Johnson, the assistant manager at the Fryn' Pan, told ABC News.

Knutson's family has had a long financial struggle. She has been a waitress at the Fryn' Pan for 18 years.
"We do everything we can to make ends meet, but often times everything is not covered," she said in the lawsuit.

Knutson's financial woes are well-known in her church, Richie said. She believes that perhaps someone from the church gave her the money through this woman but did not want to be identified.
"Somebody knew she really needed the money and she needed to be helped," Richie said.
Jacobson says it is up to the judge to decide who the money rightfully belongs to.

"The police department doesn't have a decision on either side," Jacobson said. "She did the right thing, we credit her with that. It's certainly not the police department against her. We're actually with her."
But Richie said he firmly believes this is not drug money and it rightfully belongs to Knutson.
"The only thing that smells bad about this is that it's unfair," Richie said. "So that's why we're doing something about it."

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Mario Batali Agrees to $5.25 Million Settlement Over Employee Tips

The celebrity chef and restaurateur Mario Batali and a business partner have agreed to pay $5.25 million to resolve a lawsuit filed on behalf of waiters, captains and other employees who claimed that his restaurants had illegally confiscated part of their tips to supplement their profits, court papers show.

The proposed class-action settlement, which must be approved by a judge, could cover about 1,100 employees, including servers, busboys, runners and bartenders who worked at the restaurants, in some cases as far back as 2004, according to a filing made Monday in Federal District Court in Manhattan. The suit is similar to others that have been brought in the past few years claiming labor violations by high-profile chefs and restaurants in New York and elsewhere.

The lawsuit against Mr. Batali, filed in 2010, said that he and a partner, Joseph Bastianich, and their restaurants had a policy of deducting an amount equivalent to 4 to 5 percent of total wine sales at the end of each night from the tip pool and keeping the money.

One bartender was told that “it was a policy across the Batali restaurant group” and that the money “went to the house,” a judge, Richard J. Holwell, wrote in a ruling last May. At Tarry Lodge, in Port Chester, N.Y., a spreadsheet divided a night’s tips among waiters and documented a 4 percent deduction, Judge Holwell noted. At one staff meeting, an executive “refused to justify the policy and said it was not going to change,” the judge wrote.

Employees were told the money was to cover expenses related to wine research and to cover broken glassware, the judge added. He made no findings on the merits of the case.

Other Batali restaurants named in the suit included Babbo, Del Posto, Casa Mono, Bar Jamón, Esca, Lupa and Otto, all in Manhattan.

Rachel Bien, a lawyer for the employees, and Carolyn D. Richmond, a lawyer for Mr. Batali, issued identical statements Wednesday, saying, “The matter has been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.” A spokeswoman for Mr. Batali did not respond to a message seeking comment.

The lawyers for the plaintiffs may receive up to one-third of the settlement as legal fees, if the court approves, the papers show. The defendants admit no wrongdoing.

Judge Holwell resigned last month to enter private practice, but another judge is expected to hold a hearing on the settlement proposal and then decide whether to approve it.

March 7, 2012, 6:10 pm

Evan Agostini/Associated Press

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Stephen Colbert on Florida Minimum Wage Bill - Change We Can Believe In

Change We Can Believe In. Thanks Florida law makers for trying to #uck the working class once again.

Bill slashing tipped minimum wage dies in Senate

A bill that would have cut the hourly pay of restaurant servers and other tipped employees by more than half has died in the Florida Senate — a development that drew cheers from hourly workers.

"To hear it has died is phenomenal," said Cheryl Hennessey, a server at Epcot's Garden Grill restaurant. "[I'm] thrilled to death."

The measure (SB 2106) never got a House companion and stalled after getting approval from the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee. Sen. Nancy Detert, who heads that committee, declared the bill's demise.

The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, which had proposed it, acknowledged Tuesday that it has given up this year.

"It was terrible policy, unconstitutional, and as we saw over the last couple of weeks, wildly unpopular with Floridians who realized that ... the worst thing that should be done in this economic climate is to cut working people's wages," said Tsedeye Gebreselassie, staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for lower-income workers.

The proposal would have allowed some restaurants and other employers to pay staff the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour instead of Florida's minimum of $4.65. To qualify, companies would have had to guarantee that employees would make at least $9.98 an hour when tips were included.

It met with outrage across Florida, where more than 200,000 people work as bartenders, servers and other jobs that depend heavily on tips. The bill garnered national attention, too, with TV satirist Stephen Colbert lampooning it on"The Colbert Report" last week.

Workers praised the death of the bill, saying it would have made getting by financially even harder than it already is.

Joel Melendez, 27, has to pay for college tuition and child support making about $11 an hour waiting tables at a Ruby Tuesday in Orlando. He shares a cellphone with his roommate to save money and can't afford health insurance.

"We kind of depend on every scrap we can get," he said.

Even so, restaurants argued that Florida's tipped minimum of $4.65, which under the state constitution increases annually to keep up with inflation, is crippling them financially when combined with rising costs of food and insurance.

Detert, R-Venice, who originally championed the bill, said her support for it waned as she realized that restaurant workers making less than average would not benefit.

"It wasn't going to help the low end, and it would have hurt the high end," Detert said. "That was the end of the road for us."

Under the bill, restaurants would have had to guarantee a wage of $9.98 an hour with tips included if they wanted to qualify for the $2.13 minimum. If employees didn't reach that amount, restaurants would have had to make up the difference.

But because the program was optional, restaurants with employees making less money would have had no reason to opt in. The only ones that would have had an incentive to do so would be those with employees making more.

The restaurant association's chief executive officer, Carol Dover, said Tuesday that she doesn't know whether her group will try again next year. But something must be done to keep the minimum wage in check, she said, or else Florida restaurants will cut jobs as costs go up.

"You're going to go to restaurants and have iPads and iPhones and ways in which the server is going to ultimately become archaic in some cases," she said.

FloridaAFL-CIOpolitical director Rich Templin called that argument "crazy," pointing to National Restaurant Association projections last year saying Florida and Texas will see the nation's strongest restaurant-job growth during the next decade.

By Sandra Pedicini, Orlando Sentinel

5:03 PM EST, March 6, 2012 or 407-420-5240

Copyright © 2012, Orlando Sentinel

Friday, March 2, 2012

Florida teacher burned by exploding bananas sues restaurant

PALM HARBOR -- The young schoolteacher burned during the preparation of a flaming dessert at her engagement dinner has sued the restaurant for negligence in serving the Bananas Foster.

Katie Hudgins, now 26, was engulfed in an explosion of flaming rum last June at Ozona Blue Grilling Co., a seafood restaurant at the Home Port Marina. She suffered first- and third-degree burns across a fifth of her body, including her arms, legs and face.

Hudgins sued Ozona Blue and owners Deborah and Johnnie Fragale last month, seeking unspecified damages for her suffering and mental anguish. The suit accuses Ozona Blue of not training its servers, failing to protect patrons and throwing away evidence to hamper the investigation.

On a Saturday night in June, Hudgins, a first-grade teacher at Dunedin Elementary, and James "Jimmy" Rogers, her 25-year-old fiancee, were celebrating their engagement with a family friend and Rogers' parents, who were in town for a triathlon.

After dinner, they ordered two Bananas Foster desserts, a sweet concoction of bananas and cinnamon sauteed in butter and served over ice cream. Their server, Ian Monsalvo, wheeled over a tableside dessert cart to begin the dramatic flambe.

Yet Monsalvo, the suit claims, did nearly everything wrong. He used highly flammable 151-proof rum. He poured into the flame directly from the bottle rather than from a smaller container. And he put two servings into one pan, causing the burning rum to overflow.

Flames blasted up the stream of rum and exploded, igniting Hudgins' dress and engulfing her in flames. A 20-year-old line chef and aspiring firefighter burst from the kitchen to extinguish the blaze.

As paramedics rushed to treat Hudgins, the suit states, restaurant employees cleaned up the scene, removing "all evidence of the fire" before fire investigators arrived.

"We asked them what type of bottle it was in, and they said they didn't know," said Palm Harbor Fire Rescue spokeswoman Liz Monforti in June. "When we got there, everything was gone."

Hudgins spent two weeks in Tampa General Hospital's burn ward, undergoing a series of skin grafts. Her attorney, Darryl Richards, estimated current medical bills at about $125,000.

Hudgins' skin, Richards said, remains scarred and discolored. She must coat herself in sunscreen and long clothing whenever she goes outside.

Much of the damage, though, remains invisible. Rogers' uncle, Tom George, said in July she was so self-conscious about her scarring that she was embarrassed to go outside.

"She still has a great deal of fear of fire," Richards said. "She has nightmares of herself being engulfed in flames."

The suit states the restaurant is liable for Monsalvo's negligence, though he is not named as a defendant. The suit also accuses the restaurant of failing to warn patrons of the dish's "dangerous nature."

The defendants have yet to respond in court. Owner Deborah Fragale declined to comment Thursday.

Any payment of damages could be affected by another lawsuit, filed in July, where Ozona Blue accused its insurer, Wilshire Insurance, of cancelling their coverage a day before the fire and reinstating it a day later. That case is pending.

In November, Hudgins and Rogers were married on a beach in Naples, where Hudgins was born. Hudgins is back at work, George said. "She's managing," he said. "Let's just put it that way."

Advertised on its website as the "hottest spot in Palm Harbor," Ozona Blue no longer offers Bananas Foster on its dessert menu.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Banker's One Percent Tip (1%) On $133.54 Check; "Get A Real Job"

(LAIST) In the food service industry, bad tippers sometimes live on in infamy. Entire books have been written about the plight of the waiter or waitress who gets left pennies that don't come near the standard 15-20% tip that is typical on a dining check.

One diner at a Newport Beach restaurant, however, used a recent $133.54 tab to express his disdain for his server's line of work by leaving a 1% tip and a note: "GET A REAL JOB."

According to the anonymous blogger of a just-launched site called Future Ex-Banker, his boss at a very large corporate bank hates hearing about the "99%" represented by the Occupy movement and shows his hatred by tipping a measly 1%.

To illustrate this, Future Ex-Banker posted a photo of a recent receipt from True Food Kitchen in Newport Beach showing his boss' meager tip and "advice" for a server named Breanna.

The blogger writes: "Mention the “99%” in my boss’ presence and feel his wrath. So proudly does he wear his 1% badge of honor that he tips exactly 1% every time he feels the server doesn’t sufficiently bow down to his Holiness. Oh, and he always makes sure to include a “tip” of his own."

A hostess who picked up the phone at True Food Kitchen said she had heard about the receipt, but she wouldn't say whether it was real or whether the workers remembered a customer like this.

"I am aware, but we have no statement on the issue," she said. "I'm not sure if it's a fake or not."

She did, however, confirm that the restaurant employs a waitress named Breanna, who is listed on the receipt.

Here is a pdf of the Blog from Future Ex Banker: Future Ex Banker Blog

Friday, February 17, 2012

Chow v. Chow; The Final Countdown to World Domination

After four weeks of contentious and at times personal testimony, the legal tussle between two swanky Chinese restaurants in South Beach is finally in the hands of a federal jury, which will soon decide if there’s room in this town for more than one “Chow.”

Attorneys on behalf of plaintiff Michael Chow, owner of the famed Mr. Chow chain of eateries, and co-defendant Philippe Chow — a one-time Michael Chow disciple who created his own eponymous restaurant franchise in 2005 — gave closing arguments in a Miami courtroom with markedly different styles Thursday, each making one last sales pitch before the jury decides the companies’ fates.

Michael Chow has sued his former protégé (no relation) and Stratis Morfogen, Philippe Chow’s money man, on grounds they stole Mr. Chow’s popular menu, recipes and ambiance — and ultimately his customers. Michael Chow has asked for more than $20 million in damages, a sum that would all but destroy his top competition, a string of restaurants known as Philippe by Philippe Chow.

Philippe Chow and Morfogen have counter-sued, claiming Michael Chow defamed his ex-pupil in the press. They contend that Chow instructed his former attorney, Alan Kluger, to tell a Miami Herald gossip blogger that Philippe was “a fraud” who was nothing but a food chopper while working in Mr. Chow’s kitchen. In closing, defense attorney Anthony Accetta asked the jury for $25 million in punitive damages for this affront.

Thursday, Michael Chow’s current attorney Bert Fields doubled down on the “fraud” accusation, saying that Philippe Chow — through Morfogen — habitually misrepresented himself to the public.

“[Morfogen] repeatedly said that Philippe Chow was the architect of Mr. Chow’s menu, the mastermind behind his dishes,” said Fields, whose measured, even-keeled delivery had the feel of a grandfather reciting a shopping list.

“He’s someone who tried to hitch a ride on someone else’s property. He essentially destroyed Mr. Chow’s business in New York.”

Accetta approached things differently, playing on the jurors’ heartstrings. He depicted Philippe Chow as the embodiment of the American Dream — escaping mainland China for Hong Kong in search of a better life; then later moving to New York and working for decades in Mr. Chow’s kitchen before finally going out on his own.

Along the way, he legally changed his name from Chak Yam Chau to the more-Westernized Philippe Chow — a change that Michael Chow claims impinges on his trademark rights.

“There was no plan to steal, no plan to cheat, and no plan to lie,” Accetta said. “There’s only one person that’s a liar, and that’s Michael Chow.”

Legal experts from across the country have watched with keen interest due to its unique trademark infringement aspect, but Fields spent little of his 90-minute close on that aspect of the case. Rather, he focused predominantly on the false advertising count. Their claim: Morfogen passed his prized employee off as the brains behind Mr. Chow, but Philippe Chow was never the restaurant’s first or even second chef, but rather acted as a substitute chef and food chopper.

“He didn’t create one dish, and has since admitted as much,” Fields said.

The trial’s list of witnesses looked more like a roster of guest lecturers at a culinary institute. Cooks and maitre d’s spent the last month arguing about the authenticity of recipes, and many of Philippe Chow’s employees filled Judge William Hoeveler’s federal courtroom Thursday, some in their kitchen attire, while Accetta made his final plea.

A verdict is not expected before Tuesday.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Senate bill could cut hourly wages of servers, bartenders in Florida

A bill that would cut the hourly wages of many waiters and waitresses was unveiled Tuesday by a Florida Senate committee in Tallahassee.

The bill (SPB 7201) would slash Florida's minimum wage for tipped workers — now $4.65 an hour — to the federal tipped minimum of $2.13 for companies that agree to guarantee that with wages and tips their employees will make at least $9.98 an hour.

The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association is urging legislators to pass the bill. The trade group says Florida's tipped minimum is crippling eateries financially, causing companies to cut back workforces and open fewer restaurants in Florida.

Combined with rising costs of food, insurance and implementing the new federal health-care law, "it's going to be a matter of time before the back of this industry breaks," said Carol Dover, chief executive officer of the trade group. "Minimum wage is killing them."

But critics say the bill, which was introduced in the Senate's commerce and tourism committee but not voted upon, will take money from workers who cannot afford it.

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"Anything that reduces people's wages is not what we need right now," said Emily Eisenhauer, an associate with the Research Institute on Social & Economic Policy at Florida International University.

In Florida, the average hourly wage for a waiter or waitress is just under $10 per hour, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Dover argues that many make much more than that, and Florida's current system is "just a very unfair model, when you're looking at an employee who makes way over the minimum wage."

Dover pointed out that companies opting to pay the $2.13 rate would have to guarantee all their tipped employees are making at least 130 percent of the state's minimum wage. If any employees fall short of that figure – now $9.98 – the companies have to make up the difference.

The National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for lower-wage workers, says the bill appears unconstitutional. A state constitutional amendment establishing minimum wages and raising them each year to keep pace with the cost of living was approved by Florida voters in 2004.

Under that amendment, both the standard and tipped minimum wage rise by the same amount each year, based on inflation. This year it rose 36 cents to $7.67.

State Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, scoffed at the notion that the minimum wage is keeping restaurants from opening.

"Consumer demand is what drives business," he said. "If consumer demand is good in Florida, they're going to continue to open up restaurants."

A spokesman for Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, the world's largest casual-dining company, said the company did not know about the bill until the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association sent out an alert to its members Monday. Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers said the company did not want to comment because it is still studying it.