MIAMI -- Darden Restaurants Inc. violated federal labor laws by underpaying thousands of servers across the country at Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Red Lobster and other eateries, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday on behalf of the workers.
The lawsuit filed in Miami federal court seeks to collectively represent current and past employees who worked for Darden from August 2009 to the present. It seeks potentially tens of millions of dollars in back pay and other compensation, plus interest and attorney fees, said lead lawyer David Lichter.
"Darden has a companywide pattern and practice of paying its employees below minimum wage and less than what the law requires," Lichter said. "We're seeking not only to correct the wrongs that have occurred at Darden, but hopefully this will stimulate change across the country."
Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers said the allegations "fly in the face of our values and how we operate our business."
"Each of our brands complies with all federal and state labor and employment laws, and we're proud of our standing as an employer of choice," he said in an email.
The Orlando-based company's website said it has more than 2,000 restaurants in North America that employ about 180,000 people. Darden does not franchise its restaurants.
The Department of Labor has found violations similar to those claimed in the lawsuit in several individual investigations, including a 2011 probe in which the company agreed to pay more than $25,000 in back wages to Olive Garden workers in Mesquite, Texas. Darden was also assessed a $30,800 fine in that case.
Also in 2011, Darden paid more than $27,000 in back pay and a nearly $24,000 civil penalty for labor violations involving 109 current and former Red Lobster workers in Lubbock, Texas, according to the Labor Department.
There are similar lawsuits pending in Illinois and New York, but the one filed in Florida is the first seeking to represent all Darden workers at its four major brands: Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse and The Capital Grille. Its named plaintiffs are two Darden workers in Florida and Virginia.
Jeffers said the company was unaware of the two employees' complaints prior to the lawsuit and neither of them had used an in-house program aimed at addressing employee disputes and concerns.
"We take any claims of impropriety seriously and we routinely investigate them," he said.
The lawsuit was filed under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Its claims against Darden include:
_Servers showed up for shifts as scheduled but were not allowed to clock in until customers began arriving. Some were also forced to clock out and continue working without pay.
_Employees who worked beyond 40 hours a week were not paid 1.5 times their regular pay as required.
_Tipped employees refilled salt shakers, rolled silverware in napkins and vacuumed for more than 20 percent of their work time. Such "side work" beyond 20 percent for tipped employees entitles them to at least the minimum wage, which those employees otherwise do not usually get.
Attorneys said it was unclear how much money is owed to the entire class of affected Darden workers, which they expect to easily top 1,000 people.