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The Hurricane settles lawsuit over pay practices

The Hurricane Restaurant, the local landmark known for its grouper sandwiches, has reached a legal settlement with 45 employees alleging unfair pay practices.   [LARA CERRI, Times]
The Hurricane Restaurant, the local landmark known for its grouper sandwiches, has reached a legal settlement with 45 employees alleging unfair pay practices. [LARA CERRI, Times]
Published Jul. 10, 2015

ST. PETE BEACH — The Hurricane Restaurant, the local landmark known for its grouper sandwiches, has reached a legal settlement with 45 employees alleging unfair pay practices.

The 37-year-old restaurant with rooftop views of the Gulf of Mexico will pay $67,000 to employees in varying amounts based on the hours worked and pay received from February to September 2013. Thirteen employees are getting more than $3,000.

The settlement is the result of a lawsuit filed by Roberto Robbins, 43, in August.

"I'm happy that everybody is going to get the money that's at least owed to them," said Robbins, who was a waiter there from 2011 to 2014. "I was talking to the lawyers and next thing I knew 30-some people were involved."

Rick Falkenstein, co-owner of the Hurricane and a St. Pete Beach city commissioner, referred questions to his brother, Bruno Falkenstein, who could not be reached for comment.

Among the allegations in the suit:

• The restaurant used money from the tip pool to cover the bill for customers who didn't pay;

• The Hurricane didn't pay the legal wage for overtime;

• It paid non-service employees such as dishwashers or bussers out of the pooled tips the wait staff collected.

Practices like these are common throughout the restaurant industry, according to Jason Bent, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who specializes in employment law.

"In general, it's hard to tell if an employer is doing it in good faith and they don't understand the law or if they are trying to get away with something. … It's illegal to the extent it drops wages below minimum wage," he said. "Aside from the law I don't find that practice (of making staff cover walkouts) very encouraging. To me it's a risk the employer is taking on. When customers walk out, it's not because the employee did something wrong."

Clearwater lawyers John Gadd and Christina Thomas of Morgan & Morgan represented the clients. Gadd stressed that the Hurricane was not proven guilty because a settlement was reached before the case went to trial. He believes, however, the allegations his clients made are true.

Wait staff receive a lower minimum wage because they have the ability to earn tips. Florida's so-called "tipped minimum wage" is $5.03 an hour while the standard minimum wage is $8.05.

Robbins said he knew it was illegal for wait staff to be forced to share their tips with other employees making the full minimum wage.

"I told the managers, 'You can't take tips from us for the people you pay (full) hourly rates.' They said. 'If you don't like it you can always find another job somewhere else.' "

The "tipping out" practice is legal if the wait staff chooses to do it on their own, Gadd said.

Robbins said he was glad to share when he had a good night making $200 or more in tips, but he also had to share when he only made $30 or $40 on an eight-hour shift.

"It's ridiculous we had to pay for walkouts. We aren't the criminals, they are," he said. "I had three walkouts in four years. It's not like I was letting people do it. When the place gets busy you have to run get somebody their food out then you might have to pick up drinks from the bar. You're not just standing over one table watching them."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Katherine Snow Smith at kssmith@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8785. Follow @snowsmith.