Lexington Wolff Rykaczewski is a restaurant employment lawyer who focuses exclusively on educating owners about the legal do’s and don’ts when it comes to their staff. Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine spoke with Wolff to learn about the risks restaurant owners face today and her new employment law compliance kit – Restaurant Employment Law 101.
When you know the law, you can prevent employee lawsuits. It really is that simple.
A former litigator, Wolff began to focus on employee lawsuit prevention when she saw how often employers inadvertently broke the law. “I have yet to meet a restaurant owner who was intentionally thumbing their nose at the law,” she said. “In my experience, owners don’t break the law on purpose. They break it because they flat out don’t know what the law is.”
But as any restaurant owner can appreciate, priorities – however well-intentioned – are often at the mercy of the day’s unanticipated events. “It’s truthfully just a reality of running a restaurant; you’re juggling a million balls and anything that isn’t on fire naturally gets pushed to the back of the list. But with the extraordinary onslaught of recent employee lawsuits against restaurants – from sexual harassment to wage violations and discrimination claims – and the hefty price tag that accompanies them, I think employers are beginning to see the very real consequences that can result from a lack of prioritizing employment law compliance.”
Restaurant Employment Law 101
Wolff created Restaurant Employment Law 101 – a digital multimedia compliance kit that provides owners and operators across the country with the tools they need to keep on the legal straight and narrow.
“The first step is obviously understanding what the law expects of you as an employer. Many owners simply don’t fully appreciate the extent of their legal obligations when they take on staff. The reality is that employees have significant rights, and it’s your responsibility to understand and respect those rights.”
But while an awareness of legal obligations is key, Wolff emphasizes that it’s equally important to understand how those duties play out in everyday situations. “Take sexual harassment for example. Obviously, it’s a major problem in the industry, and everyone generally knows the law – that you can’t harass a person because of their sex. But just recently, there was a claim filed against a major fast food franchise alleging that the managers weren’t taking any action after a harassment complaint was made. It’s not just about prevention; you have a legal duty to stop it too. And a half-baked effort in response to a complaint isn’t going to satisfy that duty.”
In addition to breaking down legal obligations, Restaurant Employment Law 101 comes with a variety of tools to satisfy those obligations, like step-by-step directions to handle sexual harassment complaints and disability accommodation requests, and downloadable templates on everything from handbook policies to notice and consent forms.
“A problem I see frequently is that employers think that a form they pulled from Google is sufficient to do the job. Actually, an ill-drafted employment form can be worse than not having one at all, because employers can inadvertently back themselves into a corner and not realize it until they’re facing a lawsuit.”
Primarily arising with tips and tip-pooling issues, Wolff said she has seen poorly drafted forms backfire on everything from background check consent forms to employee break policies. “Breaks are actually the perfect example of ‘what you don’t know can hurt you.’ Who would ever think that there would be a risk in how your write your break policy? But even where breaks aren’t required, employers who guarantee them in their handbook could be held liable for not providing them. That’s why break policies should specify that unless required by law, they’re not guaranteed.”
In addition to the obvious risk prevention benefits, Wolff said that employment law compliance brings an additional, valuable advantage as well – happier employees.
“When it comes down to it, employment laws were created to ensure basic dignities in employment, like a fair and professional workplace and treatment of employees based on the value of their work rather than their gender or the color of their skin. When you follow those laws, it increases productivity, strengthens workplace culture and ultimately lowers the risk of employee lawsuits.”
For additional information, visit Lexingtonwolff.com.