[Photo: Eater Charleston]
Restaurants in Charleston, S.C. have become notorious for breaking labor laws. According to an in-depth report by Hanna Raskin of the Post and Courier, over 34 local restaurants have been "cited for violating protective labor laws" since 2004. All together, these restaurants — ranging from sports bars to fine-dining establishments — haves shorted their employees a little more than $388,067 in the past decade. Even though working overtime is often expected in a kitchen, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor, Wage & Hours notes that most restaurants "don't calculate overtime or pay overtime at all."
An increasing number of restaurants in Charleston are being audited by the U.S. Department of Labor, including places like Husk, where chef Sean Brock heads up the kitchen. James Beard-nominated chef Jeremiah Bacon — whose restaurant The Macintosh owed $15,198 in back wages when it was audited in 2012 — notes that these violations often stem from "failing to question the legality" of common restaurant practices like paying cooks by the shift instead of per hour. Bacon was "not aware" of the things they were doing wrong at the time. A representative from The Macintosh released this statement: "The restaurant resolved its wage issues in 2012. Mistakes were corrected and restitution was made. The Macintosh has not had any issues since."
Many chefs and restaurateurs have come out against the audits because they believe that the labor laws "are at odds with chef development." David Howard, the president of the Neighborhood Dining Group, tells Raskin, "If an individual voluntarily elects to come into work early or stay late to learn and observe, this can contradict labor laws, because the moment they stop observing and participate, it requires compensation." Other chefs feel like it impedes on the culture of staging, or voluntarily interning for free at restaurant. Chef Kate Button (Curate) says, "As an unpaid intern, you're going to learn so much, whereas if I'm paying you, you're going to be working the fry station."
It isn't only restaurants in Charleston that have a labor violation problem. In February, the Department of Labor ordered a Philadelphia-based sports bar chain to pay more than $6.8 million in back wages and damages to employees for improperly taking tips and violating overtime requirements. Chain restaurants have also faced similar accusations. Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse, was sued by 20,000 former employees for forcing them to work off the clock for free, and a McDonald's franchisee in New York City has agreed to pay $500,000 to workers for unpaid overtime.