Two former employees, Hilary Yeaw and Brendan McAdams, are suing renowned Boston chef Barbara Lynch for allegedly withholding tips from front-of-house staff during the pandemic, the Boston Globe reports.
According to the class-action lawsuit, filed this week in Suffolk Superior Court, Lynch’s restaurant group — which includes acclaimed spots like No. 9 Park and Menton — sent a letter to furloughed front-of-house employees calling them back to work in May 2020, but stated that they wouldn’t be allowed to collect tips.
Both Yeaw (a server at B&G Oysters from 2010 to 2021) and McAdams (a bartender at Drink from 2019 to 2021) were paid a tipped wage during their employment; in other words, less than Massachusetts state minimum wage with tips filling in the gap. It’s a common and highly problematic wage structure in restaurants.
The lawsuit claims that, by withholding tips from tipped employees, Lynch’s restaurant group violated Massachusetts state labor law, which requires that tips must go wholly toward servers and other front-of-house staff who are paid a subminimum wage and rely on tips as part of their basic wage structure.
In the letter, which is quoted in the lawsuit, the company stated that it was “suspending” the restaurants’ tip pools for the “duration of the PPP assistance.” Instead, tipped employees would be paid a “bi-weekly average gross wage whether you work a full 40 hours, 20, or none at all.” Any customer tips collected during that period were purportedly rerouted to the restaurant group’s weekly food and supply pickups for employees, according to the lawsuit.
Like many restaurants, Lynch’s group applied for federal Paycheck Protection Plan loans to help keep the business afloat in 2020. The group’s South End seafood spot B&G Oysters received about $888,974 in PPP loans, while Lynch’s Fort Point cocktail bar Drink received over $1.3 million, according to the lawsuit.
A spokesperson for Lynch’s restaurant group told the Boston Globe that each tipped employee was “paid above the standard minimum wage through the PPP funds,” in a calculation based on their average weekly wages in 2019. The spokesperson says that the company was following the rules of how the PPP funds were to be used, and tipped staff members were allowed access to tips again after the PPP money ran out in the first week of July. Lynch’s group did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
Yeaw and McAdams are suing the company for owed tips and wages, interest, and legal fees. If the restaurant group settles, or if the plaintiffs win in court, all employees who were working at the restaurants during the time of the alleged labor violation will have access to the payout from the lawsuit, according to the Globe.
“Many customers went out of their way to leave generous tips in light of the danger that restaurant workers were putting themselves in,” Lou Saban, one of the lawyers representing Yeaw and McAdams, said in an email to Eater. “The point of this suit is to make sure that the tips earned by employees go to the only place they are legally allowed to go: the employees.”