Brooklyn Boro

L&B Spumoni Gardens among Brooklyn restaurants facing lawsuits

March 23, 2018 By Paul Frangipane Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn’s acclaimed L&B Spumoni Gardens in Gravesend. Eagle photos by Paul Frangipane

String of restaurant violations point to worker rights

Next to a wall of pizza ovens, an assembly line of workers at Brooklyn’s L&B Spumoni Gardens dishes out square, after round, after square pies as beads of sweat drip down their faces. While the shoulder-to-shoulder customers make their way to the cash register, a worker’s call: “Tips, guys!” is responded by a resounding, “Thank you!” when a dollar falls into the jar.

Across the way at the restaurant’s sit-in area, Isaac Perez, a former cook of 13 years, has filed a federal lawsuit against owners for skirting mandatory overtime pay.

The much-appraised L&B is by far not the only eatery accused of cheating workers in a city filled with labor violations, but just part of a series of lawsuits in Brooklyn that showcase the rights of restaurant workers.

Labor law attorney Lou Pechman of Pechman Law Group has about a dozen cases pending against Brooklyn restaurants. The list includes Sheepshead Bay’s Yiasou and Maria Ristorante as well as Williamsburg’s 1 or 8 sushi restaurant. The accused offenses range from the common avoidance of overtime pay to the less frequent violations of managers stealing tips or shaving workers’ hours on paper.

“When we started doing a bunch of these cases, and this is both for management and for employees, we found that many people in the industry … they didn’t know what their rights were,” Pechman told the Brooklyn Eagle. To help combat this, Pechman created the website, waiterpay.com to outline the rights of restaurant workers.

Emily Hilliard decided to work at 1 or 8 sushi after eating there, but as a veteran restaurant employee, when management refused to pay her for three 10-hour training days and took random percentages of her tips during each shift, she knew it was within her rights to file suit.

“I have years of experience working as a server so I knew immediately that there were problems with the practices,” Hilliard said. “The owner complained that he needed to take a portion of the tips because he couldn’t afford to pay rent otherwise.”

Attorney, Jian Hang for 1 or 8 declined a request for comment.

When New York workers fight for their rights in court, they maintain protective labor laws behind them. These include an above average minimum wage, mandatory overtime payment after 40 hours in a week and required pay of an extra hour after a worker clocks in 10 hours in a day. Proving each case is based primarily on math, Pechman says.

New York’s strict labor laws began with a shift in 2007 when then New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo started the labor crimes unit to prosecute wage theft under Gov. Elliot Spitzer, according to Rachel Demarest Gold, former deputy commissioner at the State Labor Department.

When Cuomo stepped up to governor, those policies expanded to the Exploited Workers Task Force, which has gained millions in back wages and damages for workers of various professions since it started in 2015.

When it comes to why employers steal wages, sometimes it boils down to ignorance.

“I don’t think that most employers want to harm their staff,” said Gold, who now works for Abrams Fensterman. “I get a lot of clients that just literally didn’t know this kind of stuff.”

Other employers go out of their way to save a buck.

In his lawsuit, Jorge Rodriguez alleges that while working 70-plus hour weeks at a set rate for Yiasou, managers required him to sign documents that “inaccurately reflected the number of hours he worked,” according to the civil complaint. They then allegedly kept a false set of records reflecting his hourly rates.

Robert Kraselnik, attorney for Yiasou, did not respond for comment after repeated attempts.

“You see all types of cases, some restaurateurs are just outright, flat out cheating their workers,” Pechman said. “Other restaurants are trying to make ends meet and they’re shaving the wages of their employees.”

At L&B, Perez accuses owners of not paying him mandatory time-and-a-half overtime wage after working 40 hours in weeks between 2011 and 2016. Despite working some stretches more than 75 hours, he was constantly paid the same, the lawsuit alleges. The complaint filed at Brooklyn’s federal court notes there are about 16 similarly situated workers at the restaurant.

Lawyer for L&B, Sal Strazzullo, called the allegations against the restaurant “unethical,” saying management treats its workers like family. While he did not wish to elaborate on the ethics of the accusations, Strazzullo added, “I feel it’s a frivolous lawsuit.”

A worker can be owed tens of thousands of dollars if they’re paid on salary and not paid overtime, despite a common misconception that if salary pay is given, overtime pay doesn’t need to be. Only a limited amount of workers are exempt from this requirement, according to waiterpay.com.

In addition, under the New York Labor Law (NYLL), workers who clock in more than 10 hours for a day need to be paid an additional hour of pay, called “spread of hours,” pay.

Waiterpay Top 10 Restaurant Pay Violations:

  • Management Stealing Tips
  • Minimum Wage
  • Overtime Pay
  • Payment of Hourly Wages
  • Training Pay
  • Charging for Customer Walkouts
  • Breakage Charges
  • Uniform Maintenance
  • Misappropriation of “Service Charge”
  • Spread-of-Hours Pay

Once in court, regardless if employees were paid on or off the books or were undocumented — a common demographic of abuse — they are presumed trustworthy if the employer doesn’t keep records, Pechman says.

With much of his firm targeted at Manhattan — sitting with about 70 cases pending there — the Midtown lawyer has completed roughly 25 cases in Brooklyn and has seen an uptick in violations across the borough. He cautions that whether employers are confused on labor law or skirting pay to keep the business afloat, they open themselves to “massive liability,” when they break the law.

“My feeling is,” Pechman says, “if you can’t afford to pay your workers, you shouldn’t be in business.”