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.