By Daniel J. Sernovitz – Senior Staff Reporter, Washington Business Journal
Mar 7, 2023
Union Kitchen's employee collective bargaining unit has sued the District food business accelerator and retail store operator over claims of wage theft, alleging the company and its chief executive withheld tips in violation of D.C. law.
In its lawsuit, filed Tuesday in D.C. Superior Court, the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 400 alleges Union Kitchen withheld thousands of dollars in tips paid electronically by customers using the Square Online Payments platform, to employees whose pay stubs did not reflect the full amount of those gratuities.
The Local 400 claims its members confronted Union Kitchen CEO Cullen Gilchrist about the discrepancy between internal sales data and their own pay stubs, and Gilchrist allegedly said the company had been “wrongfully keeping employees’ tips,” according to the lawsuit. It alleges that Union Kitchen has refused to fully reimburse its workers more than a year later and, instead, changed policies so employees who challenged the company could no longer receive electronic tips for their services.
In an email, Gilchrist said he had not yet seen the lawsuit and was unable to comment on specific allegations. He said Union Kitchen follows the law, and the company's legal team will address concerns raised in the suit.
In its two-count complaint — alleging failure to pay timely wages and retaliation — the union is seeking to collect those unpaid wages and triple that amount in damages, court costs and other related fees, though it didn't specify a dollar figure.
"There is no excuse for wage theft under D.C. law, and this lawsuit aims to stop such practices," Nick Jackson, an attorney representing the workers, said in a statement.
It’s the latest in a longer-running series of conflicts between the Local 400 and Union Kitchen, capped by the decision by the latter's employees to unionize with the UFCW. The National Labor Relations Board certified the 20-11 vote in June, setting the stage for ongoing collective bargaining negotiations between the two parties.
The suit was brought by the Landover-based Local 400 and one of Union Kitchen's employees, Gabriel Wittes, who worked as a cashier, food prep worker and barista from December 2019 to March 2020 and again from May 2021 through April 2022. In one instance, Wittes alleges, he was underpaid by at least $418.58 for the period from Aug. 30, 2021, through Oct. 25, 2021, according to the complaint.
The employee claims in the lawsuit that he was alerted by an unnamed co-worker who allegedly had access to Square's sales data and spotted a discrepancy between electronic tips and the company's payroll. During one two-week pay period, the lawsuit claims, she was underpaid by $337.91 in tips.
Per the lawsuit, Wittes and his colleague asked about the situation and were told Union Kitchen would hire a labor law firm to review how it calculates tips, make necessary adjustments and immediately reimburse affected workers. In October 2021, Union Kitchen told employees who participated in the tip pool that they would receive a one-time bonus, and a new tip pool policy would be implemented going forward, according to the lawsuit. The suit didn't disclose Wittes' bonus, but said his colleague received $3,135.24. When they followed up with Union Kitchen leadership, they were told the bonus amounts weren't based on a comparison between Square and payroll data, the lawsuit alleged.
Gilchrist also allegedly told employees they should not have had access to Square sales reports and that Union Kitchen has changed passwords to block their access, per the lawsuit. Wittes' colleague, in December 2021, presented Gilchrist with a petition she filed seeking to regain access to the information, according to the lawsuit, which claimed Gilchrist then retaliated in February 2022 by removing the option for customers to tip employees using the Square platform.