Gusano's Sued by Former Waitress Over Tips

The minimum wage is much in the news these days, as a recently filed Arkansas lawsuit helps demonstrate.

Jacqueline L. Conners of Conway is seeking class-action status for her federal suit against Gusano’s Chicago-Style Pizzeria, where Conners was a server.

Conners alleges that the restaurant, which paid her $2.75 per hour plus tips, didn’t allow her to keep all her tips.

Instead, she says, Gusano’s required her, as a condition of employment, to sign a tip-pooling agreement in which she agreed to share her tips with other restaurant employees, an arrangement that extended to even the kitchen staff.

The Fair Labor Standards Act allows employers to pay less than minimum wage — currently $7.25 an hour — to employees who, like waiters and bartenders, customarily receive tips from customers. It’s called a “tip credit.”

Conners’ suit says, however, “Some of the employees who were provided funds from the tip pool, in particular cooks, are not employees who customarily and regularly receive tips” and so Gusano’s is violating federal law.

Conners’ suit, filed Jan. 2, says Gusano’s “terminated” her employment and hasn’t responded to her demand for the wages she is owed, including “her improperly retained tips.”

The former server is seeking a jury trial on behalf of her and the class of “similarly-situated employees” along with compensatory damages of unpaid back wages and a return of all tips owed them calculated from three years before the suit’s filing through the date of the trial.

In addition to Gusano’s Chicago-Style Pizzeria and its corporate owner, Catfish Pies Inc., Conners’ suit names six other Gusano-linked companies and Ben Biesenthal of Bentonville.

The suit describes Biesenthal as president of all the Gusano’s entities, which it terms a joint enterprise.

For its part, Catfish Pies Inc. fired back three weeks later. It acknowledged that its servers occasionally share tips with other employees of the restaurant and that some servers, including Conners, signed a document “acknowledging the decision to share tips with co-workers,” but it denied that it violated federal law.

It also holds that Conners’ case should not be granted class-action status.

In addition to Conway, Gusano’s has locations in Bella Vista, Bentonville, Fayetteville and Little Rock and in Joplin, Mo., and Texarkana, Texas.