Civil

Parent company of Olive Garden violates the Civil Rights Act with its tipping policies, activists say

Activists looking to eliminate the sub-minimum wage for tipped employees — a practice that they say keeps workers in poverty, encourages sexual harassment and leads to racial discrimination — are taking a new approach in their campaign to end the two-tiered wage system in America: They’re arguing the lower tipped wage, sometimes as little as $2.13 an hour, violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The first test of this strategy arrived Tuesday. One Fair Wage, a national worker-advocacy group, filed a federal complaint against Darden Restaurants Inc., one of the largest hospitality groups in the country, alleging that the company’s practice of paying tipped workers a sub-minimum wage causes them to suffer more sexual harassment than non-tipped workers and leads employees of color to earn less in tips than their White co-workers. The practice, the group argues, violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which “prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.”

Rich Jeffers, a senior director of communications for Darden, which includes such national chains as Olive Garden and the Capital Grille, said “these allegations are baseless” in a statement to The Washington Post. “Darden is a values-based company built on a culture of integrity and fairness, respect and caring, and a longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

One Fair Wage pursued its latest legal strategy on tipping after discovering a research paper written by an attorney who was pursuing a graduate degree at Harvard Law School. The paper made the argument that the sub-minimum wage violates the Civil Rights Act, based on tipping research conducted by, among others, professor Michael Lynn of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration.

The paper “resonated so strongly with what we had heard from workers