By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Jayaraman advised Mascia to get other servers together because ROC could help them. Letters were written to fellow workers passing on ROC's offer to help. "I begged people to come with me," Mascia recalls. Head waiter Chad Parson had also been looking into labor laws and supported Mascia's view that the zone maître d's were, in fact, management. He and five other employees agreed to hear how ROC could help them.
The first time the Fireman Group met ROC was in November 2005, during a dinner shift at the Redeye Grill. Armed with noisemakers and bullhorns, more than 20 ROC members stormed the dining-room floor, shouting complaints about mistreated workers and unpaid wages.
While the diners gawked, Jayaraman presented a letter stating claims of misappropriated tips, sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and failure to follow wage laws.
The letter said that it was ROC's "custom to settle matters amicably," without litigation. In court, the letter noted, "your costs and fees will substantially increase." The Fireman Group was told to contact ROC to resolve the situation.
"Saru had presented the letter to a guy who was probably the closest person to the door in a suit," Fireman says. The letter was sent to a lawyer, and the Firemans thought ROC would go away.
They should have known better. Earlier in 2005, ROC had stormed the four-star restaurant Daniel in the middle of dinner service and handed a manager a letter demanding a discussion of workers' accusations and threatening a lawsuit with numbers reaching $1.2 million. Last month, Daniel settled a suit that included accusations of discrimination against non-white employees.
A lawsuit against another high-profile Manhattan eatery also forced a settlement. The Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group, which owns Cité and the Park Avenue Café in addition to its namesake steakhouse, agreed in 2005 to pay an out-of-court settlement over claims of not paying overtime, not paying for hours worked, not giving half-hour lunch breaks, and one case of discrimination. In return, ROC agreed to end its regular demonstrations outside the restaurants. The settlement stated that the Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group was "settling the dispute to avoid the time, trouble and extraordinary expense of further litigation," adding that the agreement was not an admission of wrongdoing.
ROC made PR hay, trumpeting on its website: "After one year and a half of protests, litigation, press, handbilling, clergy visits, and more, we won $164,000 for 23 workers in 2 restaurants in one of New York's most powerful restaurant corporations, as well as lunch breaks and much more."
As for ROC's pressure on the Fireman restaurants, Jayaraman says (as she carries a stack of buckets from a recent protest): "It's more than just the tipping-out issues. There is direct fraud in changing people's hours."
Fireman blames "human error" for time-clock problems. "We reviewed the time sheets and payroll of all our employees," he says. "There was one person, who is a plaintiff, that we discovered discrepancies of maybe a few hundred dollars." The employee, he says, has since been paid.
It's a fact that ROC's pressure on the Fireman restaurants has paid off. The Fireman Group has stopped charging servers a fee for tips left on credit cards and has also begun to pay servers for the time they spend on call or when they're sent home due to a lack of activity on particular days.
Fireman says he consulted with two lawyers on another issue: who should pay for workers' uniforms. He says the lawyers told him that restaurants are not legally responsible for purchasing or cleaning workers' uniforms. The management received an anonymous letter stating that the employees felt this unfair.
"We made the decision to pay for the uniforms," says Fireman, who adds that the restaurants are also planning to give workers a cleaning allowance. "When employees come to you en masse, it's a way of direct dialogue with us that fields results."
As long as it's kept in house, that is. One of the clashes between ROC and a Fireman restaurant actually started brewing when David Mohney, a server at Shelly's, was fired over two cups of coffee. A couple from Italy ordered coffee after they had already paid their bill, but they left before Mohney could give them a new check. Though the unpaid-for coffee was the stated reason for his firing, Mohney says he thinks the real reason was his questioning of management. After working as a server at Shelly's for three years, Mohney was sent home.
Hearing that ROC had gotten a law firm to represent a case against the Redeye Grill, Mohney contacted ROC himself. He was told that he was going to have to get other people from Shelly's involved. "They didn't want to tie it in with Redeye," Mohney recalls. So he contacted former Shelly's employees, and ROC found them the law firm Outten & Golden. Since then, more than 200 employees from Fireman restaurants have signed on, and now there are two lawsuits, one involving workers from the Redeye Grill, and the other a class-action suit with Mohney as the main plaintiff.
The class-action suit claims, among other things, that the restaurant unfairly deducts from wages for tips left on credit cards and for the cleaning of workers' uniforms. The suit also asks money for unpaid hours of on-call duty and also alleges overtime violations and sexual harassment. (The Firemans deny wrongdoing.)