A former server at the El Gaucho steakhouse in downtown Tacoma has sued the company, accusing management of not properly paying its employees.
Managers have withheld tips from employees, failed to pay them time and a half for overtime work and required servers to work while not being clocked in, the class action alleges.
It also contends management has paid workers with credit to use only at the restaurant instead of proper payment.
Matthew Blasco, 32, is the server who filed the suit Tuesday against the Tacoma, Bellevue and Seattle El Gaucho locations.
It also names the MacKay Restaurant Management Group, which operates the restaurants and does business as the El Gaucho Hospitality management group.
Blasco says their practices are common throughout the industry.
“I know for a fact it happens in other restaurants,” he told The News Tribune on Thursday.
Their work scheme made it so that they were making less than minimum wage.
Darrell Cochran, the attorney representing a former server suing El Gaucho
In the suit, Blasco seeks unspecified damages, and asks that the court order El Gaucho to stop making servers work less than minimum wage, off the clock or for insufficient overtime pay.
Asked for comment, El Gaucho spokeswoman Beth Herrell Silverberg said in a statement that the company does not comment on “specific details of pending litigation.”
She added, “El Gaucho is proud to set a high standard for employee compensation in the vibrant Northwest restaurant industry, as well as provide a great place for people to practice their talents for hospitality.”
Blasco left El Gaucho about a year ago and now works as a firefighter in Yelm and as an emergency room technician at Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup, his attorney Darrell Cochran said.
Asked how many employees were affected, Cochran said: “That is a question that we’ll be asking El Gaucho quickly. And I expect state and possibly even federal investigators will be asking too. We know it’s probably somewhere in the magnitude of hundreds.”
If a judge agrees that the suit can continue as a class action, that would mean other El Gaucho workers besides Blasco could take part in any award, should it succeed.
The state Department of Labor & Industries has not received any wage complaints about El Gaucho, and unless it does, is not likely to investigate, spokesman Matthew Erlich said.
Speaking generally about the complaint process, Erlich said workers sometimes choose to hire a private attorney instead of going through L&I to recoup wages.
Cochran contends the way the company was paying employees amounted to less than what’s required by law.
“Their work scheme made it so that they were making less than minimum wage,” he said.
Cards with restaurant credit that the suit alleges were given in lieu of payment for off-the-clock work (such as prep work or cleaning) looked similar to a gift card, Cochran said, and could be used only at El Gaucho’s locations.
They were tan, read “promotional” across the bottom and had the company’s logo, he said.
Management employees were included in the tip pool, Cochran said, “taking away the amount of money available to ensure people are getting paid minimum wage.”
He also thinks the allegations are an industry problem, not specific just to El Gaucho.
“I think a number of high-end restaurants conduct business in this fashion,” he said.