Le Bernadin, the seafood palace owned by Chef Eric Ripert and Maguy Le Coze, is one of seven New York restaurants to have earned the ultimate Michelin accolade of three stars. Recently, they joined another exclusive club. The restaurant is the target of a class action lawsuit filed by their employees over the issue of compensation. Similar lawsuits are pending against the restaurant empires of Daniel Boulud and Mario Batali, as well as Alto and the 21 Club.
The Le Bernadin suit alleges that owners did not pay tipped employees minimum wage or overtime, and that they first pooled all tips and then shared them with non-tipped employees such as managers and beverage directors. Because there are more than 50 employees involved, they are petitioning to have the case considered as a class action.
All these lawsuits stem from one source—an attorney named Daniel “Maimon” Kirschenbaum, who works for the firm of Joseph & Herzfeld. Kirschenbaum has practiced law since 2005, and specializes in cases involving restaurants (specifically discriminatory hiring practices, unjust dismissal and skimming of tips).
Business is good for Kirschenbaum, and getting better all the time. All the alleged practices mentioned in these lawsuits have been standard restaurant procedure for as long as I can remember, and I’m no spring chicken. The pooling and arbitrary redistribution of tips allows the owners to hire a non-tipped employee (for example, a service bartender) and have the tipped employees pay his or her salary. Since the tipped employees haven’t formally agreed to the arrangement, it can probably be said that the money is being stolen from them.
It will be interesting to see how these lawsuits are decided, but the aftermath should be even more fascinating. In many cases, the alleged practices tend to contribute to a restaurant’s ability to control costs and keep prices down. If owners have to pay minimum wage and cough up appropriate compensation for all employees, restaurant tabs are likely to go up. Let’s hope that the members of the public who are rooting for the little guy are still cheering when they have to reach into their pockets for more money.