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Rainforest Cafe workers sue over wage-tip policy

A Boston law firm filed a suit seeking class-action status Monday against one of the nation’s largest restaurant groups alleging the company’s Rainforest Cafe in Burlington violated state wage laws.

Two servers employed at the Rainforest Cafe since 1998 are named plaintiffs in the case. Hundreds of workers might qualify for damages, according attorney Hillary Schwab of Fair Work, P.C.

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The defendant, Landry’s Inc., is the Houston parent company of more than 40 restaurants chains across the county with total US sales of about $1.67 billion last year, according to restaurant industry research firm Technomic. Landry’s, run by chief executive Tilman J. Fertitta, a Houston billionaire, owns a number of restaurants groups with a presence in Massachusetts, including Morton’s The Steakhouse, Chart House, McCormick & Schmick’s, and the Oceanaire Seafood Room.

The suit filed in Middlesex Superior Court alleges that a Rainforest Cafes policy illegally required servers to share their tips with some employees who were not part of the wait staff. Schwab said the Rainforest Cafe forced her clients to split tips with hosts, who do not qualify as wait staff because they do not serve food or beverages, or clear tables.

As a result of the Rainforest Cafe policy, Schwab says the restaurant failed to satisfy tip-credit standards that must be met to legally pay servers an hourly rate of $2.63. The general minimum wage in Massachusetts is $8 per hour. “They should have paid the minimum wage in full,” Schwab said. “Judicial rulings have decided that if you don’t do everything you are supposed to in order to pay the very low minimum wage, then your right to take the tip credit is invalidated.”

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She alleges that the restaurant further benefited by lowering the hourly wage of hosts, then supplementing their pay with the servers’ tips.

Schwab’s clients, Monica Cormier, 33, of Everett, and Holly Peterson, 51, of Billerica, said this tip policy has been in effect for at least a year and a half.

The suit also targets a “discount program” at Rainforest Cafe that deducts a flat fee from employee paychecks to cover any drinks consumed at work and provides a discount on food. Schwab said the deduction is too high and violates state law by requiring employees to pay more for food than it costs the employer.

Landry’s did not return calls seeking comment about the lawsuit Monday.

The plaintiffs are seeking restitution for all gratuities not received, wages not paid in full, money deducted from pay, and all court and attorney fees.

Schwab said she will attempt to determine whether the tip practice is limited to the Rainforest Cafe or is a Landry’s corporate policy that might affect other restaurants in the state.

The Rainforest Cafe suit is the latest in a long list of Massachusetts cases alleging tip and wage violations. Schwab and her law partner, Steve Churchill, both formerly worked at Lichten & Liss-Riordan of Boston, which has litigated high-profile tip and wage cases against defendants such as Starbucks Corp., Harvard University, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Hard Rock Cafe International Inc.

In addition to filing a suit against Landry’s, Schwab also filed an unrelated lawsuit Monday against Delta Air Lines on behalf of flight attendants at Logan Airport.

The attendants claim the airline doesn’t pay them for all hours worked or provide overtime compensation.

Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @tarynluna.
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