LOUISVILLE, Ky., (WDRB) -- Eight current or former employees of Eddie Merlot’s have filed a federal lawsuit against the downtown restaurant claiming they were illegally forced to share their tips with other employees.

The lawsuit, filed June 12 in U.S. District Court, alleges that since Jan. 2011, servers have been forced to participate in an, “invalid tip pool and to share tips with non-tipped employees,” including kitchen staff and managers.

It is common for employees to voluntarily share tips at restaurants but, under state law, owners cannot require servers to tip support staff.

Eddie Merlot's waiter, Michael Parsley said, "We do not have a problem tipping out staff now but sometimes the staff realizes they're going to make that money regardless of what they do." Parsley said, "That's not fair, I think everybody would hustle more it I handed them money at the end of he night versus he's getting what he's getting regardless of what I made."

 The suit also claims the restaurant has a policy requiring tipped employees to spend more than 20 percent of their time performing non-serving, non-tipped duties while being paid less than minimum wage.

The plaintiffs are seeking class-action status to include all current and former employees who were employed as servers or other tipped positions, which the suit claims numbers in the hundreds.

The restaurant company had not yet been served the suit, said director of operations Bruce Kraus. "I cannot properly comment on the situation without having had a chance to review the actual legal documents related to the alleged violations," Kraus said in a statement emailed from his office in Ft. Wayne, Ind.

The issue of alleged forced tip sharing became a highly publicized topic in 2013 when the popular Lynn's Paradise Café closed following a controversy involving employees who claimed they were let go for not complying with the policy. Lynn Winter, the owner of the restaurant, has denied those allegations.

Also, last year, two former employees of Doc Crow's Southern Smokehouse and Raw Bar filed a lawsuit against the Main Street restaurant claiming they were forced to share their tips with other employees. That lawsuit has since been dismissed.

And six former bar workers at 4th Street Live! alleged in a 2010 lawsuit that, among other things, they were forced to illegally pool and share their tips. The three bars deny the former employees' allegations, saying, in part, that tip pooling was voluntary. The lawsuit is still pending.

In the current case, the plaintiffs are Lauren Green and Michael Parsley, both bartenders at Eddie Merlot’s; Mary Ragsdale, a cocktail server; Allen Gibson, who worked as a server; Gary Zeck, a server; Ashley Killkelly, a server and bartender, Chris Stevenson, who worked as a server and occasional shift manager from Nov. 2011 to Feb. 18, 2013 and Samantha Williams, a server.

The servers and bartenders claim they are paid a reduced hourly wage – $2.13 an hour – and are required to participate in a “tip pool” where they share their tips with other employees, such as sales managers, who are not legally permitted to take employees’ tips.

Kentucky's labor laws allow employers to pay employees $2.13 per hour, instead of the minimum wage, as long as they make a certain amount in tip money.

According to the suit, the forced tipping allows the restaurant to pay a lower hourly wage to non-tipped employees, “which increases its wealth.”

The suit also claims the plaintiffs are required to come to work an hour before the restaurant opens, performing non-tipped duties - yet are still only paid $2.13 an hour.

And since Aug. 2013, the employees have not been allowed to work more than 28 hours a week to avoid the company having to provide health insurance, but have been required to work off the clock, the suit claims.

The suit claims Gibson was fired for complaining about the policies. Gibson was told he was fired for failing to provide a discount to a group of customers, but the suit claims that behavior was not uncommon and never led to discipline.

The plaintiffs are seeking a jury trial, lost overtime and wages, back-pay, and all unpaid compensation and benefits.

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