On The Case

Lou Pechman’s specialty may be a victim of COVID-19. But he’s worried about his clients

(Reuters) - Three weeks ago, Lou Pechman, the head of a six-lawyer firm in New York City, sat atop a burgeoning practice area. Pechman represents restaurant workers in pay disputes with their employers. He won a settlement of more than $3 million for waiters at Manhattan’s Sparks Steak House back in 2009. By 2019, according to a Wall Street Journal profile describing Pechman as the “key ingredient” in litigation by restaurant workers, his firm was involved in more than 50 cases against defendants, ranging from a Long Island pizzeria to a seafood restaurant in Connecticut.

That practice may turn out to be a casualty of COVID-19. For the moment, Pechman is practicing from his apartment in Manhattan, conferring with the other lawyers in the firm by Zoom and Skype. Waiters and restaurant staffers used to walk into the firm’s Madison Avenue offices to consult with Pechman about prospective cases. That’s obviously not happening anymore. Even settlements that Pechman thought he had nailed down with restaurant defendants are now in flux, he said, as restaurant owners confront the viability of their businesses.

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“A lot of the settlements are either on shaky grounds, off the table or being renegotiated,” Pechman said. “Everyone is a bit more compassionate given the circumstances … We haven’t forgotten that we are still advocates for our clients but we’re certainly not as aggressive.”

Pechman said his firm will be fine even though, as he put it, “the world is quite different” than it was at the beginning of this month. It’s his restaurant worker clients, he said, that he’s really worried about. When New York barred restaurants from offering anything but takeout and delivery service, their jobs began to evaporate - and many of his clients, Pechman said, are undocumented workers who can’t receive state unemployment benefits or aid from the new federal legislations addressing COVID-19.

“I’ve had a number of clients call me up, literally crying that they can’t feed their family and that they have nowhere to turn,” said Pechman. “A lot of these folks, they live paycheck to paycheck. Pulling the plug on all of these workers is a catastrophe, particularly for the undocumented community. It’s a heartbreak.”

Pechman said he has little hope that restaurant workers’ jobs will come back anytime soon, if ever. He’s worried that a lot of New York restaurants won’t be able to keep paying rent and other fixed costs while the shutdown lasts. Even when they’re allowed to reopen, he said, “Who’s really going to want to eat in a restaurant with other people around until this COVID-19 is eradicated?”

His firm’s WaiterPay lists some of the nonprofits that are providing aid to restaurant workers, but Pechman said that for his clients, “It’s a very, very scary time.”

Pechman is counting on work other than restaurant pay cases to sustain his firm. The firm, he said, works on both employee and management cases, bringing wrongful termination suits for executives in a variety of industries and counseling companies, including some restaurants, on employee issues. Just last week, Pechman said, he advised the human resources director at a company with 1,800 employees about complying with state and federal regulations in advance of placing all but 200 workers on furlough. Pechman said he expects that kind of corporate advisory work to expand, with employers suddenly confronting novel issues like whether they’re permitted to monitor employees’ temperatures and how much warning they must provide in advance of layoffs.

And layoffs will inevitably lead to discrimination and breach-of-contract litigation, a boon for the employee side of Pechman’s practice, he said. It will be tough for workers laid off en masse to claim discrimination, he said, but he’s anticipating claims to arise from smaller businesses, where layoffs are more selective. “Historically, employment lawyers do better in times of layoff and distress,” Pechman said.

Pechman and his wife, meanwhile, leave their apartment only for a walk in the very early morning, when they’re confident the streets will be empty. Their daughter, a third-year medical resident at New York’s Mt. Sinai, has told them enough horror stories about COVID-19 to scare them into isolation, Pechman said. When he’s feeling depressed about working at home, cut off from clients and colleagues and wondering how the business will shake out, he tries to remember his daughter and other healthcare workers.

“Obviously, our practice is going to take a hit like everyone’s practice is going to take a hit,” he said. But I’m not going to complain, you know … Whatever inconveniences we have, relative to the healthcare providers, we are the lucky ones.”