Labor department complaints have led to Lone Star Steakhouse agreeing to pay back wages totaling more than $38,000 to 56 people employed at the restaurant in Mount Airy, involving money wrongfully taken from tips they received.
It was alleged that restaurant management withheld more tips from employees than was legally required under a “tipping pool” arrangement.
“Which is completely legit, but not the way they were doing it,” said one former wait staff member who was affected and has received a check as a result.
Under tip pooling or sharing arrangements, waiters or waitresses are required to ante up a portion of the tips directly received by them which is then divided among others who are part of the process such as cashiers, bus personnel and others. This can include money left on tables as well as tips included with meal purchases using credit cards.
But while valid, labor law governing tip pooling policies allows no more than 15 percent of employees’ salaries to be taken for that purpose.
Complaint sparks audit
The former server at Lone Star in Mount Airy, who still works in the local restaurant industry and declined to be identified publicly, said the percentage the business actually withheld was 23 percent.
In a typical week in his case, this meant the restaurant management took about $69 rather than the $45 it was entitled to, according to the ex-employee who has compiled a stockpile of receipts and other records to document what occurred.
“It should have been my money,” said the Westfield resident, who mounted an exhaustive effort to bring the matter to the attention of both the N.C. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Labor.
“I filed a complaint after I left,” added the former employee, who worked at Lone Star — part of a large chain based in Plano, Texas — from December 2014 to May 2015.
His sometimes-frustrating struggle went on for about a year until achieving a positive result. “I can’t tell you how many phone calls it took.”
The complaint process initiated by the ex-employee prompted the state labor department to launch an audit of the local steakhouse which covered all affected employees within a two-year statute of limitations.
The investigation not only led to relief for him, but others who hadn’t kept such meticulous records. The former Lone Star staffer pointed out that the restaurant often hires younger people, single mothers just trying to get by and others who might not understand the need for records.
That audit resulted in Lone Star agreeing to pay the back wages. Only the restaurant in Mount Airy, located on Woodland Drive off U.S. 52, is believed to be involved.
“There were 56 employees who ended up getting checks out of all this,” the local man said of those affected to varying degrees financially by the improper tip percentages. “Mine was over $500.”
The money has been mailed in recent weeks. “I’ve been getting a lot of messages from people saying they’ve got their checks,” the former employee said in recent days.
In addition to have more of his pay taken for tip pooling that was legally allowed, he mentioned that the restaurant even earmarked a percentage of employees’ money when no tip was given by a customer.
The management made an assumption about sales and based its percentage taken on that, said the ex-Lone Star server, who was bothered that the restaurant seemed to arbitrarily target what it wanted from the tips that were the property of employees.
Yet he did not explicitly say he believes this was done in order to pad its profits.
“I don’t even think the managers understood this.”
A man who identified himself Thursday afternoon as a manager of Lone Star in Mount Airy deferred questions about the case to Roxanne Cox, a human resources official at the restaurant chain’s headquarters in Texas.
Cox did not immediately respond to a voice-mail message seeking her comment, including any steps taken by Lone Star to alter its tipping pool policies in light of what happened in Mount Airy.
Meanwhile, the situation is still under investigation by the federal labor department. “This isn’t over yet,” said the local man involved.
“What’s disturbing is it’s not just this restaurant that’s doing it,” he alleged of the tip procedure embraced by Lone Star in Mount Airy.
Yet he continues to work for another local chain restaurant, partly because of a flexible schedule that enables him to be enrolled in college — and the tips received allow one to have a ready supply of cash.
“I love dealing with people,” he said of another factor.
There are lessons to be learned from his and other employees’ recent experience with Lone Star Steakhouse — “you need to understand where your paycheck is coming from,” is one piece of advice from the former employee, along with another:
“Don’t let the big man step on you.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.