Business

Possible compromise on restaurant workers gets mixed reviews

A possible legislative compromise that attempts to address concerns raised by restaurant owners facing class action lawsuits over state wage and hour rules received mixed reviews Thursday.

While members of the Connecticut Restaurant Association told state lawmakers Thursday they support much of the working draft legislation, crafted largely by Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont's administration, union leaders and some restaurant workers said they believe the proposal still puts wait staff and tip workers at a disadvantage when trying to recoup wages they're owed.

"We need a process that includes the concerns of workers," said James Bhandary-Alexander, staff attorney at New Haven Legal Assistance Association who represents restaurant workers in wage-related matters. "A bill that doesn't include something positive for workers is not a compromise."

There are an estimated 48,000 tipped workers in Connecticut and more than 8,000 eating and drinking establishments across the state.

Restaurant owners have urged the General Assembly to clarify the state's wage rules, saying certain inconsistencies have become the subject of litigation. Some owners are facing the possibility of paying costly fines and back wages after being told for years it's legal not to count every minute their servers and bartenders perform a side task other than serving, so long as it's less than 20% of their shift.

Connecticut Restaurant Association Executive Director Scott Dolch said the consequences of lawmakers not taking action "will undoubtedly lead the closure of more restaurants across Connecticut."

But earlier this year, Lamont vetoed a bill that would have required the Connecticut Department of Labor to clarify its rules for when restaurant workers earn the $6.38 an hour tip wage and when they don't. At the time, Lamont raised concerns about how the legislation would have repealed the current regulations retroactively in order to address any pending lawsuits. He noted that could "extinguish a worker's right to an amount lawfully required." A spokesman for the governor said the administration then spent much of the summer trying to reach a compromise with the restaurants and unions, in hopes of holding a vote in a special legislative session.

While the draft proposal still allows workers to recoup wages they believe they're owed, it also limits what restaurants must pay if they can prove they had a "good faith belief" their actions complied with state law. It also calls on the Department of Labor to come up with new regulations and guidance concerning the complicated wage issue.

But it was apparent Thursday during an informational hearing at the Legislative Office Building that there's disagreement about what draft legislation actually will do.

Bhandary-Alexander said the proposal would restrict restaurant workers from utilizing a class action lawsuit to recoup wages they're owed, noting it's nearly impossible to hire a private attorney to take on case involving a worker owed $300 or $400. But Ryan O'Donnell, a lawyer for the restaurant association, said the current compromise proposal does not preclude class action suits. Rather, he said it includes "greater standards" for when an employee's attorney can bring a class action lawsuit — an effort to protect a restaurant owner from being "crushed by an overly litigious process."

It remains unclear whether there will ultimately be a vote on this issue before the General Assembly opens its regular legislative session in February. Some key legislative Democrats, including the House and Senate chairs of the Labor and Public Employee Committee, voiced their opposition to the compromise proposal Thursday.

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