Lawsuit targets pay practices at Olive Garden’s parent


A group that seeks higher guaranteed wages for restaurant workers is suing Olive Garden’s parent company, saying its pay policies make workers more likely to ensure harassment and discrimination.

One Fair Wage filed the lawsuit Thursday against Orlando, Florida-based Darden Restaurants. Darden employs more than 167,000 hourly workers at 1,800 restaurants in the U.S. and Canada. In addition to the Olive Garden chain, it owns Longhorn Steakhouse, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, Yard House and The Capital Grille.

The lawsuit says Darden has a policy of paying its tipped workers subminimum wages as low as $2.13 per hour in the 43 states that allow that practice. Tips are added to those wages to ensure employees make minimum wages; if wages and tips don’t equal the state or federal minimum, Darden must make up the difference.

One Fair Wage says Darden’s policy forces workers to put up with harassment and discrimination because if they complain they might get lower tips. Seventy percent of tipped workers are women, the group says, and restaurant workers report higher levels of sexual harassment than any other profession.

“The racism and discrimination is so vast in my restaurant,” said Ptorsha Cozart, who works at a Cheddar Scratch Kitchen in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Cozart, who is Black, said customers will sometimes request a white server or ask her to pull down her mask so they can decide if she’s attractive before they tip her.

In the remaining seven states, including California and Oregon, Darden is required to pay workers a minimum wage and then add tips on top of it. One Fair Wage says that system makes workers significantly less likely to have to ensure harassment.

One Fair Wage’s Executive Director Saru Jayaraman said that while subminimum wages for tipped workers are widespread, the group is targeting Darden because it’s one of the largest employers of tipped workers in the U.S.

“Darden lobbies to ensure this is the law. Darden makes it the law,” Jayaraman said.

In a statement, Darden said One Fair Wage’s dispute is with federal and state wage laws, not Darden itself.

Darden said its tipped workers earn an average of $20 per hour. Darden also recently raised its minimum wage in an effort to better compete for scarce workers as it emerges from the pandemic. The company said last month it will pay workers at least $10 per hour __ including tips __ this year, rising to $12 per hour in 2023.

One Fair Wage is also backing federal legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour and gradually raise subminimum wages for tipped workers.

Carisa Shade, 37, who works for $2.13 per hour plus tips as a bartender at an Olive Garden in North Carolina, said she sometimes has to endure hours of harassment with a smile on her face so she can bring home enough money to support her four children.

“I deserve, and my kids deserve, a lot more than that,” she said. “It’s just not enough. It’s never going to be enough unless this gets fixed.”

The lawsuit was filed with the U.S. District Court in Northern California. It seeks a ruling that Darden’s practices are illegal.


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