Darden Restaurants hit with lawsuit over wages
* Complaint targets Olive Garden and Red Lobster chains
* Lawsuit seeks to collectively represent thousands
* Darden dismisses allegations as "baseless"
MIAMI, Sept 6 (Reuters) - Darden Restaurants Inc, best known for its Olive Garden and Red Lobster chains, was hit with a lawsuit in federal court in Miami on Thursday accusing one of the largest U.S. restaurant operators of violating federal labor laws by underpaying workers at its popular eateries across the country.
The lawsuit accuses the Orlando, Florida-based company of failing to pay federally mandated minimum wages and forcing its waiters and waitresses to work "off-the-clock" before or after their shifts.
Filed under the Fair Labor Standards Act, it also claims many Darden employees have failed to receive appropriate overtime wages for work in excess of 40 hours per week.
Only two plaintiffs are named in the 19-page complaint filed on Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.
But the suit seeks to collectively represent what it describes as "at least thousands of individuals" who are current or former employees of Darden, from 2009 to the present.
"We think it's the first lawsuit in the country that seeks a nationwide collective action involving all four of Darden's flagship restaurants, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse and Capital Grille," said David Lichter of Higer Lichter & Givner, one of the lead attorneys who filed the complaint.
"Since the lawsuit has been filed this morning we've been contacted by servers around the country who have expressed interest in the action," Lichter said.
Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers said the company takes "any claims of impropriety seriously." But he said Darden had no record of the plaintiffs in Thursday's complaint attempting to resolve their alleged pay complaints through an internal "dispute resolution" process.
"We believe they are baseless and fly in the face of our values and how we operate our business," Jeffers said.
Lichter said it was not immediately clear how much money he and other lawyers would potentially demand that Darden pay out due to the lawsuit, in the form of back pay and other compensation.
But he said the complaint was aimed at putting the entire restaurant and hospitality industry on notice that abuses targeting poorly paid "tipped employees" would no longer be tolerated.
"In these times, people are struggling to get by. They're entitled to earn at least the minimum wage," Lichter told Reuters.
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