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Applebee’s Unappetizing Employment Practices get a Federal Court Apology

Applebee’s Unappetizing Employment Practices get a Federal Court Apology

By Spencer Wilson, Brayton-Thornton AttorneyWaitress

It is a sad day when the state of the law forces judges to openly apologize for the unfairness of their decisions. But that is exactly what happened last week when a Pennsylvania federal judge refused to let a group of Applebee’s employees pursue their wage-and-hour claims as a class action. This decision effectively eliminated the low-wage workers’ ability to bring their claims against their employer. Recognizing the unfairness of its decision, the court apologized, noting that the current state of legal affairs is “lamentable” and that the result it reached was “unappetizing”—and no, this was not a reference to the Applebee’s menu selection.

This decision is part of a terrible trend with terrible consequences.

In Porreca v. The Rose Group, a group of Applebee’s workers sued their employer, alleging that the restaurant chain behemoth had engaged in wage theft by paying them less than the minimum wage required under federal and Pennsylvania law.  The workers were all servers, bartenders, hosts, and other hourly employees that received an hourly wage below the statutory minimum in addition to tips.  However, Applebee’s, required the workers to show up early for their shifts and stay after their shifts ended to clean, dust, sweep, vacuum, wash dishes, and perform other untipped work.  Even though there was no way the workers would be tipped for this extra work, Applebee’s paid them a wage less than the federally mandated minimum. This scheme, the workers contended, was illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act and its state counterpart.

The FLSA was enacted 75-years ago to prevent exactly these kinds of abuses.  Passed by Congress in response to FDR’s demand that workers deserve “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” the FLSA establishes, among other protections, minimum wage and overtime requirements that ensure workers’ “health, efficiency, and well being.”

Victims of wage theft often cannot meet life’s basic necessities, such as paying rent, putting food on the table, or receiving necessary healthcare. However, when compared with the damages available in other types of lawsuits, the amount recoverable in an individual wage theft case is often so low that an attorney cannot justify pursuing the case on an individual basis.  As such, collective actions, which allow the short-changed workers to band together in unity against an employer’s illegal wage theft scheme, are often the only realistic way workers are able to recover their statutorily guaranteed wages. And in fact, the FLSA provides its own framework for bringing collective actions to recover their unlawfully withheld wages.

This collective action mechanism is essential to upholding workers’ FLSA rights. The ability to band together and consolidate legal claims has allowed innumerable cheated workers to obtain justice. For example, just a few years ago, Wal-Mart agreed to pay a group of its workers $85 million after they filed a wage-and-hour lawsuit alleging that the retail giant had illegally manipulated their time cards in an attempt to lower their wages.  As a result, hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers each received between $150 and $1,000 – an important sum for low-wage workers. If that case had proceeded as individual lawsuits, it is unlikely that more than a handful of the workers would have recovered any of their unpaid wages.

The Pennsylvania federal court recognized the importance of class and collective actions in wage theft cases.  It noted that the inclusion of class action waivers in arbitration clauses is “in many situations, unjust” and that the idea that employees have a say in negotiating the contents of their employment contracts is pure “fantasy.”  Unfortunately, as we have previously discussed, the Supreme Court has repeatedly taken steps to enforce class action waivers, even when doing so deprive workers of important substantive rights. And federal courts have refused to create an exception to this practice, even when a case involves important workers’ rights.  Based on this “lamentable” state of legal affairs, the well-intentioned Pennsylvania judge was forced to deny Applebee’s workers the right to proceed collectively, “as unappetizing as the result may be.”

I, for one, have lost my appetite.