Six current and former employees filed suit Tuesday against the company that oversees the hugely popular Founding Farmers restaurants, alleging that managers asked them to work more than 40 hours a week at multiple locations without paying overtime wages.
The Farmers Restaurant Group operates some of the most in-demand restaurants in the United States, including Founding Farmers locations in the District, Maryland and Virginia as well as Farmers Fishers Bakers in Georgetown and Farmers & Distillers on Massachusetts Avenue. Among other complaints, the plaintiffs allege that they would work at two or more locations during a week, clocking in more than 40 hours, but that those hours were considered individual to each restaurant, not collective to each employee.
“They’re two different restaurants, not two different employers,” said Molly A. Elkin, a partner with Woodley & McGillivary, a labor and employment law firm that represents the plaintiffs. “It’s one employer. That’s a violation” of overtime law.
The overtime allegation is one of several outlined in a lawsuit filed late Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The employees, who are or were bartenders and servers at Maryland or D.C. locations, also allege the company and its owners, Daniel Simons and Michael Vucurevich, violated federal and state or D.C. laws covering minimum wage, overtime and sick leave.
“I’m super confident we take great care of our people. . . . There’s a lotta love on The Farm,” Simons responded via email. “From what I understand, wage and hour actions are quite common in the restaurant and retail industries and often unrelated to company culture, intent, or actual well-being of the staff. Once I receive any official notifications, I will of course study them and participate fairly and diligently in any process.”
The plaintiffs also claim that during training shifts, they were required to share their tips with managers; that they were paid the tipped minimum wage ($2.77 in the District, $3.63 in Maryland and the $2.13 federal minimum in Virginia) when performing tasks that were not part of their tipped duties; that they were required to spend their own money to buy work uniforms and supplies, such as corkscrews, pens and lighters; that they were paid the wrong (and lower) hourly rate when they were compensated for overtime; and that they were required to attend pre-shift meetings without clocking in.
“Whatever information that needed to be passed down to the workers for the shift, that was done off the clock prior to clocking in. It would take 15 to 30 minutes an evening or a lunch shift, and they didn’t get paid for that time, at all,” Elkin said. “The managers would prevent them from clocking in before the start of the actual shift.”
The complaint against Farmers Restaurant Group — which a recent Forbes article said runs the top two most-booked restaurants in the nation — is the latest labor and wage allegation against a high-profile restaurateur.
Five years ago, superstar chef Mario Batali and a business partner agreed to pay more than $5 million to settle a lawsuit over employee tips. More recently, D.C. restaurateur Ashok Bajaj (Rasika, Bombay Club, the Oval Room, among others) settled with a number of Bombay Club workers who accused his Knightsbridge Restaurant Group of not paying overtime and other wages.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys in the Farmers complaint say they hope to get it certified as a class-action lawsuit, which would allow former and current Farmers employees in the District and Virginia to opt in on the lawsuit. (Similar workers in Maryland would have to do nothing to become part of the class action, though they could opt out.)
“This is not a case just for six people. It’s going to be a case, we hope, for every server who worked in one of the Farmers’ five restaurants,” Elkin said. “We’re talking over 1,000 people easily.”
As part of their case, the plaintiffs are also claiming that Farmers denied them sick leave, a violation of D.C. law, which requires that companies provide one hour of paid leave for every 43 hours worked, not to exceed five days of leave per calendar year. The complaint alleges that Farmers threatened to “fire any employee who requested paid leave” for illness.
“If servers call in sick, like, ‘I’m sick, I’m coughing, I’m disgusting,’ ” said Elkin, “They say, ‘Come in anyway.’ Who wants that? I don’t want that as a customer, and I certainly wouldn’t want that as an employee there making $2.77 an hour.”
The plaintiffs are seeking back pay as well as “an amount equal to that back pay as compensatory damages for a failure to pay on time,” Elkin said.
Founding Farmers Complaint on Scribd