By RICHARD MULLINS | The Tampa Tribune
The United States Department of Labor is launching a massive sweep of restaurants in Hillsborough County, which officials say is rife with violations of child labor rules and owners who short-change workers.
Department teams have already raided several hundred in recent years, and will probably approach 50 to 60 establishments in this round, according to local officials, after finding “significant child labor violations,” including children forced to work dangerous equipment.
“The restaurant industry employs some of our country’s lowest-paid workers who, especially during hard economic times, are vulnerable to exploitation,” said James Schmidt, the Wage and Hour Division’s district director in Tampa.
“Investigators will be making unannounced visits to full-service restaurants in Hillsborough County to remedy widespread labor violations, and ensure that law-abiding employers who pay their workers full and fair wages are not placed at a competitive disadvantage.”
The crackdown comes in the wake of several high-profile restaurants including the Chipotle burrito chain, and the Estela’s Mexican Restaurant group in the Tampa Bay area.
Regulators have recently shifted their approach to such cases. Whereas in the past, regulators would take individual complaint calls and investigate individual cases, Schmidt said the approach now is more strategic.
Now, regulators will target an industry sector, like hotels or restaurants that are often problematic, and conduct everything from raids to pre-scheduled appointments to education seminars to help raise awareness and improve that whole sector.
From 2006 to 2010, the Tampa division office conducted 1,166 investigations of restaurants, recovering $2.8 million in minimum wage and overtime pay.
With child labor rules, it does not matter if the person under age 18 is part of a small family-owned restaurant, Schmidt said. They cannot run equipment that regulators consider dangerous, like large dough mixers or meat slicers.
Hillsborough County has a rash of restaurants breaking federal law, department officials said, including restaurants that require employees to work only on tips, or managers incorrectly accounting for overtime pay or making illegal deductions from workers’ paychecks if there are discrepancies with cash registers.
For instance, labor department officials said restaurants often incorrectly calculate any overtime based on the $2.13 per-hour base rate for workers earning tips, instead of the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
For those employees who normally receive more than $30 in tips a month, employers can only pay the lower $2.13 per hour rate if the total tip amount covers the difference to meet the higher federal minimum wage.
Last September, the department filed suit against the Estela’s Mexican Restaurant group, claiming that since August 2007, the restaurant repeatedly violated federal law by not paying at least minimum wage for employees who worked more than 40 hours a week. Lawyers for the restaurant have denied those claims in papers filed in the case.
Recently, the department handled a case with a local restaurant, Sushi Alive on North Dale Mabry Highway, in which the department said it mishandled tips. That case settled with the restaurant changing pay practices, Schmidt said, and paying about $54,000 in back wages to employees.
Employers seeking training on wages, or employees who suspect a workplace violation can call the Department of Labor’s hotline at 866-487-9243.