Wednesday, September 18, 2013

More on problems at the Curry Leaf (and nationwide)

Posted By on Wed, Sep 18, 2013 at 5:44 PM

click to enlarge BRYCE CRAWFORD
  • Bryce Crawford
Today's story about paycheck problems for some employees of the Curry Leaf restaurant highlights not only the possible vulnerabilities of people working for small business, but also the difficulties involved in gaining restitution.

To add a little more to our conversation with the Colorado Department of Labor, one of a few avenues available, here's spokesman Bill Thoennes in an Aug. 12 e-mail response to the Indy's questions about what an employee can do if their boss won't pay them:

"[Division director] Michael [McArdle] acknowledged that occasionally employers will not be responsive to the Division's efforts," he wrote. "In those cases, the Division may recommend that the employee pursue the wage claim in small claims court, where injured parties do not have to be represented by an attorney. The court has the authority to levy a judgement for the owed wages plus an additional penalty of up to 125% of the owed wages. In addition, employees may choose to pursue their dispute in district court through an attorney (where they can also recover significant penalties against the employer), or employees may file a complaint under federal law with the U.S. Department of Labor."

But there are payment issues across the board. Saru Jayaraman, founder of worker-advocacy group ROC UNITED, says the bigger problem is that restaurants are required to make up the difference if a tipped worker's hourly rate ends up being lower than that state's minimum wage. Often, she says, they don't.

"And the law says, of course, that the employer’s supposed to make up the difference between the tip minimum wage and the regular minimum wage," she said in an Aug. 12 phone conversation with the Indy. "But the system is so ripe for abuse that even the [U.S.] Department of Labor — and this is a government entity, so you know the numbers are low — but they claim that there’s an 84-percent violation rate with regard to the tip minimum wage."

Then there's also the larger, somewhat philosophical, issue of whether or not customers should continue to pay the restaurant's workers via tips, instead of having the restaurant cover the salaries itself. Pete Wells, the New York Times' food critic addressed the issue a couple weeks ago. Tipping "is irrational, outdated, ineffective, confusing, prone to abuse and sometimes discriminatory," he wrote. "The people who take care of us in restaurants deserve a better system, and so do we."

After addressing the fact that servers and cooks, respectively, are often the restaurant's version of the white-collar/blue-collar coin, Wells wrote, "A second change has been howling outside the door. Front-of-house workers are suing one respected restaurant after another, including Dovetail [a high-end restaurant in New York City], last month, accusing them of playing fast and loose with the laws on tips. The charges include sharing tips with workers who aren’t eligible for them and making tipped employees spend too much time on what is called sidework, like folding napkins between meals."

Now, if you're not being paid at all, you have a few options, as detailed in the story: file a suit in small-claims court, or complain to the Department of Labor. But one option we weren't aware of was pointed out to us by former El Paso County Commissioner Jim Bensberg in an e-mail: If you're getting bad checks, as some of the Curry Leaf employees were, tell the district attorney's office through its Bad Check Restitution Program.

"We have included a NEW Bad Check Crime Report that you can return to our office," reads the paperwork. "Filling out this form is the first and only step you need to take advantage of this free program offered by the 4th Judicial District Attorney. This program is a no-cost, taxpayer-free public service designed to help you recover your losses and protect your business from bad check writers."

That form is here: 

Bad_Check_Crime_Report.pdf

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