Front Room battle goes to court

Food Fight
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  January 13, 2010

Next time you're at the Front Room, order that Old Fashioned with extra bitters. There's enough to go around.

Last week, six restaurant workers sued the Front Room in federal court, seeking $160,000 in unpaid wages and damages. The complaint lists eight specific grievances including: illegally sharing tips, failing to inform workers of "tip credit" (the system that explains why restaurant workers do not make minimum wage), requiring work off the clock, not providing overtime pay, failing to provide breaks, and failing to withhold taxes. Sexual-harassment and gender-discrimination claims that were made at a December 1 protest outside the Front Room were not cited in the lawsuit.

Owner and executive chef Harding Lee Smith has dismissed all the claims publicly, saying that Restaurant Opportunities of Maine (ROC-Maine), the national group organizing the workers here in Maine, has a more insidious agenda — to take down a successful restaurant. Others who have come to his defense suggest that the national branch of the ROC is interested in unionizing restaurant workers in Portland. The ROC is backed by the Southern Maine Labor Council, the regional union group, but its stated goal is not unionization. "Our agenda is to improve conditions for restaurant workers," ROC organizer Steven Emmons said in an interview on Monday. In a follow-up e-mail, he said, "ROC is definitely not trying to unionize workers. That is a common misconception of what we are doing. We are only trying to fight against exploitation in the restaurant industry and educate workers about their rights."

The lawsuit came after several employees sent a letter to Smith, asking for a sit-down meeting to discuss variations of the aforementioned gripes. The response, regardless of whose story you believe, was unsatisfactory. At that point, the employees, with ROC-Maine's aid — the organization had previously reached out to hundreds of local restaurant workers in an attempt to obtain more information about their working conditions — filed suit, claiming violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Maine Human Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, among other state and federal laws.

"The laws — they're according to whoever's the boss," says Eva-Laura Mercedes Ramirez-Wisiackas, a former Front Room bartender, who says she contacted ROC-Maine after she witnessed a co-worker get "wrongfully fired."

"This was something that we needed to do to show the owner that it wasn't respectful," she says of the efforts at-large, adding that "the goal was not to throw a lawsuit in their face." The day after the lawsuit was filed, Ramirez-Wisiackas, who had already given her two-week notice because she is moving, was told that the rest of her shifts would be covered, and that she shouldn't come in for work. "We see this as a very clear form of retaliation," Emmons said, adding that labor laws specifically protect workers from such backlashes.

Still, Emmons says ROC-Maine and the plaintiffs would consider dropping the suit if Smith agreed to a meeting and made some "substantive changes" to address the complaints in the lawsuit.

"My goal is to help people who work in restaurants in general," says Sean Slaughter, a plaintiff and former Front Roomer (only one of the six plaintiffs currently works at the restaurant). "I'm tired of people in the restaurant business being treated unfairly. It's the same deal from restaurant to restaurant. It's more about respect."

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