Three former employees of Last Resort Grill have filed a collective action lawsuit against the restaurant for failing to pay minimum wage for all hours worked, according to court documents filed on Aug. 24 with the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia.
The lawsuit argues that owners Melissa Clegg and Jamshad Zarnegar violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by “failing and willfully" refusing to pay minimum wages from 2017 to 2020.
The three plaintiffs, a former bartender, a server and a host/server assistant, are seeking unpaid wages for all applicable workweeks. The plaintiffs are joined by four additional former employees who have consented to participate in the lawsuit. All former employees involved in the suit are women.
The complaint states Clegg and Zarnegar violated the labor act in seven ways, including allegedly failing to compensate for required staff meetings, tastings or other side work and inaccurately recording hours worked due to a faulty timekeeping system.
Clegg and Zarnegar also charged employees illegal kickbacks of $75 for each missing customer receipt and allowed managers and back-of-house employees to receive money from the restaurant’s tip pool, among other allegations, according to the complaint.
The complaint also said the restaurant violated the U.S. Department of Labor’s tip pool regulations by illegally permitting managers and back-of-house employees to receive money from the pool. According to the filing, the back-of-house employees would often pressure and harass servers to share tips. When servers complained to management, the response was “be a team player.” Additionally, both cash and credit tips from takeout orders went directly to back-of-house employees.
Plaintiff Keela Singleton, who worked as a server and bartender from Feb. 2017 to June 2020, described the work environment as manipulative in an interview with The Red & Black. She said the management looked down on “rocking the boat” and stirring trouble, and if an employee spoke up, the management had the power to take them off the schedule.
“I’m not the only person who ended up going and getting therapy because of Last Resort, but I did end up going to therapy because of Last Resort,” Singleton said. “It was a constant source of anxiety. Walking into that building was an immediate dark cloud type of feeling, but we felt so trapped being there.”
Employees often felt trapped at the restaurant due to its perceived prestige, Singleton said. Management often told employees that they could get a job anywhere if they had Last Resort listed on their resumes. However, they would also make comments about not giving an employee a good recommendation or that certain people would have a harder time finding jobs if they didn’t work at Last Resort, Singleton said.
According to the filing, the plaintiffs worked off-the-clock due to “excessive and unrealistic side-work expectations.” When service staff complained, the typical response was “you should manage your time better.”
“There was this weird mentality that we were supposed to suffer there,” Singleton said. “We were supposed to be slightly miserable at our job, and if we weren’t, we weren’t working hard enough.”
The restaurant allegedly paid the plaintiffs tipped minimum wage for all hours worked, including “side-work” tasks of cleaning bathrooms, changing tablecloths, cutting up produce, rolling silverware and sweeping the parking lot, including the disposal of dead animals. The tipped wage was $2.13 per hour for servers and $5.50 for bartenders.
The filing states Clegg and Zarnegar owe the plaintiffs, and all similarly situated employees, back wages in an amount to be determined at a future trial.
“Wage theft is a serious harm to our ‘working poor’ in America and is even worse when you consider that businesses are literally taking money from tips — generally the property of the server — to pay for the owner’s lifestyle,” plaintiff attorney Peter Steckel said in an emailed statement. “I will aggressively pursue any action against any employer who chooses to take money — either in tips or unpaid minimum wages — from their hard working and generally underpaid employees.”
On Aug. 27, Clegg announced the Last Resort Grill’s sister restaurant LRG Provisions will shut its doors in September due to lack of profit from catering, pressure with hosting events and allowing dine-in services during the pandemic.
Clegg declined The Red & Black's request to comment on the lawsuit.