Two former employees of renowned restaurateur Barbara Lynch have brought a class-action lawsuit against the James Beard-Award-winning chef, claiming she failed to pay out tips to staff after her eateries reopened from pandemic-era closures.
Instead, the suit alleges, the seven Boston restaurants under the Barbara Lynch Collective diverted tips in May and June of 2020 to an employee food-and-supply pickup program — a violation of the Massachusetts law that allows waitstaff and other service employees to be paid below the state minimum wage if tips will make up the difference.
Hilary Yeaw, who worked as a server at Lynch’s South End seafood restaurant B&G Oysters from 2010 to 2021, and Brendan McAdams, who was a bartender at her Fort Point cocktail bar Drink from 2019 to 2021, are the plaintiffs in the suit, which was filed Wednesday in Suffolk Superior Court.
When the pandemic struck in March 2020, the suit alleges, waitstaff employees at restaurants under the Barbara Lynch Collective were furloughed. Meanwhile, the restaurants applied for and received loans through the federal Paycheck Protection Plan, with B&G Oysters receiving more than $850,000 and Drink securing more than $1.3 million, the suit claims. Established during the pandemic, PPP loans were designed to allow businesses to maintain payroll, rent, and other costs while COVID-19 kept them shuttered.
The suit claims that when employees were asked to return to work in May and June of 2020, Lynch sent a letter to employees that said the restaurant group had “suspended the tip pool through the duration of the PPP assistance.” Any tips would be used to continue an employee food-and-supply pickup program, “which you are welcome to attend,” the letter added.
Since Yeaw and McAdams were paid below minimum wage, the suit claims, they were entitled to receive a share of tips left by customers in order to take home at least the full minimum wage, which at the time was $12.75 an hour.
“It’s outrageous and a violation of the trust of both the workers and the customers that the Lynch Collective seems to have allegedly taken these tips that were intended to support the hourly workers who were struggling at the time,” said Lou Saban, one of the employment lawyers representing the plaintiffs.
In a statement from the Barbara Lynch Collective, a spokesperson said for the eight-week period in question, every tipped employee was paid above the standard minimum wage through the PPP funds. They were paid according to their average weekly wages for 2019 “as outlined in the rules of how PPP funds were to be utilized,” the spokesperson said, adding that tips were reinstated when the funds ran out in the first week of July 2020.
“The company intends to vigorously defend these claims,” the spokesperson said.
The lawsuit, which is requesting a jury trial, demands that all affected employees be paid restitution for all owed tips and wages, damages, interest, and attorney costs. If the plaintiffs win in court or if the Barbara Lynch Collective settles, all employees who were working at her restaurants at the time will receive a cut of any resulting payment.
Saban said that while the case has been filed, Lynch has not yet been served with a civil complaint, and it does not appear that she has retained a lawyer yet.
A South Boston native who’s been a fixture on Boston’s restaurant scene since the early 1990s, Lynch is well-known for high-end concepts like No. 9 Park, Menton, and the Butcher Shop. She is in the midst of opening her first restaurant in over a decade, a seafood restaurant called The Rudder, in Gloucester.
Saban said he hopes that this lawsuit will send a message to other business owners to understand and follow all labor laws.
“There’s a lot of violations, and most restaurants have something going on that’s not 100 percent correct,” he said. “If we can settle the case or win in court, and that kind of sends a shot across the bow to restaurant owners out there who are trying to do the right thing.”
Dana Gerber can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @danagerber6.