LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The 442-restaurant Bob Evans chain likes to say its founder believed in “treating strangers like friends and friends like family.” And it says those principles are still alive today at every one of its restaurants.
But they apparently don’t apply to its sub-minimum wage servers, according to a lawsuit filed Monday in federal court in Columbus, Ohio, about 20 miles southwest of the company’s headquarters.
The complaint accuses the chain of violating state and federal minimum wage laws by paying servers in Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee so little their work amounted to “forced labor.”
Though the law allows restaurants to pay servers who receive gratuities less than the $7.25 minimum wage, the exception only applies to work that generates tips, such as serving food, or activities that support it, like setting tables or refilling condiments.
In a 23-page lawsuit, filed as a potential class action on behalf of servers in Louisville, Lexington, Elizabethtown, Nicholasville and Somerset, Kentucky, as well as in Clarksville and New Albany, Indiana, the plaintiffs say Bob Evans illegally paid them less than the minimum wage for such work as cleaning bathrooms and making biscuits — which don’t generate tips and aren’t exempt from the minimum wage.
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The suit also accuses Bob Evans of breaking the law by paying minimum wage for tip-supporting work — such as rolling silverware into napkins — that lasted more than 30 minutes at a time or took up more than 20% of their workday, both violations.
The suit says management discouraged servers from saying their non-tip work consumed more than 20 percent of their shift and often instructed them to change their answers to “No” to be allowed to clock out and receive their tips.
The plaintiffs even say store managers in some instances employees to clock in at a pay rate well above minimum wage, but after their shift was over, management at headquarters logged in and retroactively reduced their pay rate to $2.13 per hour.
James Roberts, Bob Evans’ general counsel, said the company had no comment.
The suit was filed by the Lexington law firm Garmer & Prather on behalf of Rhonda Thomas, who works in the restaurant in Clarksville, Indiana, and Rodney Mitchell, who works at its Hillview, Kentucky, store.
Attorney Jay Prather said he doesn’t know how many servers were affected but it happened at 13 restaurants, two of which are now closed.
The suit says that two days after the acting general manager at the Hillview location asked Mitchell whether he and other servers intended to file a lawsuit, Mitchell was demoted from supervisor to server in retaliation and his shifts cut from five to three per week — even though he had no attendance or other workplace problems.
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Mitchell filed another lawsuit Tuesday in Jefferson Circuit Court alleging discrimination and retaliation.
The federal suit asks for backpay and damages that could be many multiples of that figure.
Bob Evans Restaurants was acquired in 2017 for $565 million by Golden Gate Capital, a San Francisco private equity firm that now controls $19 billion in capital. The firm was founded in 2000 by former investment professionals from private equity firm Bain Capital, which was co-founded by 2008 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Golden Gate previously purchased California Pizza Kitchen in 2011 for $470 million and Red Lobster in 2014 for $2.1 billion. As part of a private company, Bob Evans Restaurants does not have to disclose compensation for executives, but when it was part of Bob Evans Farms, top executives received an average of $1 million in annual pay, according to ExecPay.com.
Andrew Wolfson: 502-582-7189; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adwolfson.
Who the lawsuit covers
The lawsuit covers Bob Evans Region 2, Area 6. If you worked there in the past five years and want more information, call the Garmer & Prather at 859-254-9351 or go to its webpage at https://www.garmerprather. com/contact-us.html. A federal judge will decide whether the lawsuit proceeds as a class action or what is known as a collective action; if it goes forward as the latter, each employee must opt in by signing and filing a consent form.