Photo of Mastros by Laura Hayess by Laura Hayes

Mastro’s Steakhouse is in hot water. A former server at the D.C. location is suing the national chain, alleging that the company violated labor standards when it forced him to share his tips with colleagues who don’t regularly interact with customers, such as wine runners and baristas.

Koly Camara worked for Mastro’s from 2015 to 2017 and was paid using the tip credit system, which has been thrust into the spotlight with the passing and repeal of Initiative 77. (WAMU reports that there is already an effort in place to repeal the repeal of Initiative 77.) According to federal law, back-of-house employees such as cooks and other employees who don’t interact with customers can only share in a tip pool if an employer doesn’t use a tip credit when paying its employees. 

Initiative 77 sought to eliminate the two-tier wage system over a period of eight years. Currently employers are allowed to pay tipped workers $3.89 an hour. If their tips don’t carry them over the standard minimum wage of $13.25 an hour, the employer is required to make up the difference. Supporters of Initiative 77 argued that having two different wages creates gray areas where employers can more easily commit wage theft.  

Earlier this month, Judge James E. Boasberg of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia granted Camara’s lawsuit “collective action” status, meaning a notice will be sent to servers across the country who worked for the steakhouse’s many locations from May 2015 until the present to alert them if they want to join the suit. In addition to D.C., Mastro’s Steakhouse has locations in eight states.

The lawsuit says that Mastro’s required its servers to pool more than 40 percent of their tips with employees like wine runners, food runners, and baristas, noting that wine runners spend almost all of their time working in or near the restaurant’s wine cellar, away from diners.

Mastro’s attorney attempted to squash the case, saying Camara signed a binding agreement that disputes would be decided in arbitration rather than in court. The restaurant couldn’t produce such a document. Camara submitted a sworn declaration denying he had signed such an agreement. Mastro’s also argued that no reasonable jury would side with Camara. The judge found otherwise, and even tossed in some cheeky lingo. “This argument would have been better left in the meat locker,” he wrote. 

“In the wake of the legislation overturning Initiative 77, this case demonstrates that tipped employees such as servers can still vindicate their rights and still petition the court to receive a fair wage that they’re entitled to when they have not received one under the law,” says Camara’s attorney Jason Rathod. “We’ve had several cases for servers where we’ve been able to get them sums of money related to tipped minimum wage.”

Rathod also notes that this case is significant because it shows that it’s not just casual restaurants like Denny’s or IHOP that commit wage theft. “In this case it’s a steakhouse that charges quite a bit of money,” he says. “It involves a tip-sharing system. We think this could be common in higher end restaurants. We see violations across the board.”

Camara’s legal team is waiting on Mastro’s to provide a list of servers that have worked for the company over the past three years so they can disseminate the court-approved notice giving these workers an opportunity to join the lawsuit. 

Mastro’s attorney, Gerald Maatman, issued the following statement on behalf of his client:

“The Company is considering its options, including an appeal of the denial of the arbitration motion. The Company requires all employees as a condition of employment to sign an arbitration agreement. Therefore, it would be highly unusual for this plaintiff not to have signed one as well, especially since electronic records indicate that he did. In any event, the plaintiff ultimately will be a selective action of one because of the company’s arbitration agreement policy. Moreover, the Company pays its employees properly. We therefore disagree with the entire premise of the lawsuit and will vigorously defend this lawsuit.”  

Mastro’s Steakhouse, 600 13th St. NW; (202) 347-1500; mastrosrestaurants.com