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Restaurant wage suit gaining steam

Back Bay group managers altered with hours, they say

Atlantic Fish Co. on Boylston Street had to pay $26,888 in back wages to workers last year after wage violations were found there. Bill Greene/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

More than 300 current and former employees of Back Bay Restaurant Group have joined a lawsuit that accuses the company of failing to pay minimum wages and overtime to servers, bartenders, and other staff.

Back Bay Restaurant Group, founded by well-known restaurateur Charles Sarkis, ran popular restaurants such as Abe & Louie’s, Atlantic Fish Co., and Joe’s American Bar & Grill until it sold off most of them last year to a private equity firm.

The lawsuit, filed in fall 2010, is now making its way through US District Court in New Jersey. Sarkis, the restaurant group, and Robert Ciampa, the company’s chief financial officer, are all named as defendants.

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The case was brought by Bijan Shakib, a former server at another Back Bay Restaurant Group holding, Papa Razzi in New Jersey. In court records, Shakib says restaurant managers required employees to work “off the clock,’’ and routinely adjusted their time cards to reduce hours so that the company could avoid paying overtime. After Shakib complained to Papa Razzi management, the company fired him, according to the lawsuit.

He then contacted the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development to report the pay violations. Several months later, he received a one-page “internal audit’’ from Ciampa that showed management had reduced Shakib’s clocked-in hours during a two-month period and the former server was owed compensation for 61.15 hours. Shakib requested a full audit of his time records and was denied, according to court records.

Back Bay Restaurant Group’s “failure to pay proper wages in a timely manner was made willfully, without good faith, and with reckless disregard for [Shakib’s] rights and the rights of similarly situated employees,’’ the lawsuit says.

William J. Anthony, a lawyer representing Back Bay Restaurant Group, Sarkis, and Ciampa, said the business “strives to comply with all laws and believes it did so as it relates to the claims in this matter.’’

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Anthony declined further comment.

Officials with Tavistock Group, the private equity firm that acquired many of the restaurant chains from Sarkis, did not return messages seeking comment.

The Newport Harbor Corp., which this week purchased most of the Papa Razzi restaurants in New England, declined to discuss the matter.

The wage violations alleged by Shakib were pervasive at other restaurants operated by Back Bay Restaurant Group, according to other former employees. Shervin Dadkhahipoor said he faced tremendous pressure to work long hours without pay as a waiter from 2009 to 2011 at the Papa Razzi in Chestnut Hill and then at Joe’s American Bar & Grill on Newbury Street.

Dadkhahipoor, who recently joined the lawsuit, said the company repeatedly failed to pay him minimum wage and overtime, and prohibited employees from taking breaks. Dadkhahipoor said he was surprised that such a large, well-known restaurant group would violate basic workplace laws.

“I don’t care if I get money. I just want [Back Bay Restaurant Group] to lose money,’’ Dadkhahipoor said. “They made a lot of money off a lot of hard work that they didn’t pay for.’’

Wage violations were also found at Atlantic Fish Co. on Boylston Street, according to former employees and a federal investigation. Last year, the US Department of Labor examined Atlantic Fish’s records and found $26,888 was due to 57 employees because of violations of the overtime provisions between 2009 and 2011. The back wages were paid, and the division has no current enforcement activity with Back Bay Restaurant Group, according to Ted Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the agency.

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Dimitri A. Ivanov, who said he worked at Atlantic Fish from 2009 to 2011, said he frequently worked several hours each day off the clock to prepare the restaurant for opening and to clean it up at night.

“Our timecards were adjusted to reflect that we had worked 35 hours or less each week regardless of how much time we were actually in the restaurant,’’ Ivanov said. “We were told they could not afford to pay it, and if we went into overtime, we would be given less shifts.’’

Atlantic Fish has long violated wage laws, according to Jose Castillo, who said he worked as a cook there from 1999 until 2008 and recently joined the lawsuit. He asserts that he never received overtime during his nine years as an employee despite working 50 hours each week. Castillo said he also lost money when he took time off for vacation and his vacation pay was $10 an hour - rather than his regular $14 hourly wage.

“A lot of people have complaints about this company,’’ Castillo said. “I’d like my money back.’’


Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jennabelson.