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Restaurant workers at BWI airport score big victory against employer who withheld wages

November 6, 2015: If you ever fly out of BWI, the Baltimore Washington International Airport, you may grab a bite at one of the restaurants where Jasmine Jones recently worked. She started working at DuClaw Brewing Company a few years ago and, soon after, began picking up extra hours at Zona Mexicana and Villa Fresh Italian Kitchen, all restaurants owned by Aero Service Group/Aero Service Partner restaurant group. When payday rolled around, Ms. Jones was surprised to receive two paychecks, with tax coming out of both. She mentioned the odd method of payment to her co-workers, who confirmed that this was “normal” for this employer. Some of them didn’t want to speak up, fearing that their hours would be cut or that they would lose their jobs. Not convinced that Aero’s behavior was right, she confronted her employer, who brushed her aside. Later Ms. Jones learned that Aero was moving employees between multiple restaurants and tallying hours worked at each site separately to hide that they were actually working overtime.

Meanwhile, other Aero employees were noticing more problems. Former bartenders Amanda Fowler and Joseph Cianos described how things worked at DuClaw Brewing Company and Zona Mexicana: two bar tenders would be scheduled at a time, but were told that only one of them should clock in. That bartender would get all of the credit on paper for tips made at the bar that day. While in practice the tips would be split between them, on paper, the second bartender didn’t exist. Making things worse, they would have to cover the bill if customers failed to pay.

To top it off, employees were required to work at off-the-clock cleaning “parties.” As former Zona Mexicana server Leah Geslois described it, they would come in to deep clean the restaurants for two hours and receive pizza instead of wages.

Eventually, the employees’ union got involved and people started talking. The employer apologized and sent each employee a check, saying that it wouldn’t happen again. But the size of checks was not enough to cover the wages that had been withheld. As Mr. Cianos said, it felt like hush money.

But the apology checks didn’t keep people quiet. “If you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, working hard, being available, why can’t you be paid right?” Jasmine Jones asked. She and two of her co-workers sued Aero for their wages, represented by the Public Justice Center’s Workplace Justice Project and private co-counsel Howard Hoffman and Bradford Warbasse. By reaching out to current and former employees, they were able to gather 20 people to the case. The lawsuit claimed that Aero violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by (1) denying earned overtime to tipped and non-tipped employees (servers/bartenders, and back-of-the-house staff, respectively) by requiring employees to work at multiple restaurants but tallying hours worked at each site separately; (2) requiring employees to work unpaid cleaning parties, (3) requiring tipped employees to pay money out of their tips for uniforms and customer walkouts; and (4) failing to provide tipped employees with advance notice of their rights.

This fall the workers scored a big victory, settling the case for $131,545.96 in unpaid wages and liquidated damages, as well as attorney’s fees. The total recovery, equal to 100% of lost wages plus an additional 50-60% of that amount in damages plus attorney’s fees, both compensates Ms. Jones and her colleagues for the improper denial of payment they had suffered and serves as a significant penalty for their employer’s violations of law. The workers on the settlement committee also insisted that the settlement not be confidential – they wanted the resolution of this suit to be public, so that other workers would know their rights and other employers would understand that they may face consequences if they attempt to turn a profit by underpaying their employees. Ms. Jones felt validated and glad that her employer had to give back what they took from her. “If you don’t speak up,” she emphasized, “you won’t get what you need.”

The workers’ courage to speak up has also led to significant changes at Aero; they eliminated their practice of issuing separate checks and counting hours separately for time worked at different restaurants in the same week and changed their problematic uniform policy. The employer who once brushed Jasmine Jones aside finally had to change because as she says, “He knows we have a voice.”