Three employees at a Daily Grill restaurant near Los Angeles International Airport filed a class-action lawsuit against the restaurant chain Wednesday, charging that it had failed to pay them and more than 100 other workers the "living wage" required by the city.
The two servers and a busboy alleged that the restaurant has been guilty of "wage theft" for years, depriving employees of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Their lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court says workers are entitled to triple damages for the underpayments by the restaurant, which is inside the Westin Los Angeles Airport Hotel on Century Boulevard.
Grill Concepts Inc., the privately held owner of 19 Daily Grills, said it had already corrected the problem.
"We investigated and determined adjustments needed to be made," the Woodland Hills company said in a statement. "We've made those adjustments and are paying retroactively."
The chain declined to specify the adjustment amounts but said it "strives to be fair with its employees, particularly in terms of compensation."
But attorney Randy Renick, who represents the workers, said he has heard nothing from the restaurant about remedying the underpayments.
"I reached out to them," Renick said, "and they rebuffed my efforts."
Researchers have said that employers in Los Angeles commonly use such tactics as undercounting employee hours to shortchange workers.
At a news conference Wednesday announcing the lawsuit, Victor Narro of the UCLA Labor Center said a 2010 survey found that L.A. workers lost $26.2 million a week on average, or more than $1.4 billion a year.
"It's time we come together and do something about the wage-theft crisis," Narro said.
The Los Angeles City Council approved the living wage law in 2007 for hotels near LAX and their restaurants, reasoning that the businesses benefited from the flood of customers generated mostly by the city-owned airport. With cost-of-living adjustments, the ordinance now requires minimum pay of $12.16 an hour, without benefits; less if the employer provides healthcare. California's minimum wage stands at $8 and is set to increase to $9 on July 1.
The workers say that the Daily Grill has routinely paid them 40 to 60 cents an hour less than the minimum. Renick said that amounts to roughly $1,000 in lost earnings per worker per year; more than $100,000 total annually when spread across the entire restaurant.
"When I learned they were underpaying me, I was very upset. It was insulting," Madecadel Goytia, a server at the restaurant, said at the news conference. "I work very hard for this company. I made a lot of sacrifices for this restaurant to be successful."
Sandra Diaz, who buses tables and fought for the living wage law, said the reduced paychecks made it hard for her and her husband, parents of a 1-year-old daughter, to pay the bills.
"We need every cent we earn to take care of our family," she said. "Almost all of our checks go to rent, the lights, our phone and our bills. I want to save money to give my daughter a better future. But it's not possible."