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Several years ago, when waiter Jesse Velandia realized his employer wasn’t paying the required minimum wage, he called his cousin, a fellow waiter, for advice. His cousin’s recommendation: Call Lou Pechman. Mr. Pechman, a Manhattan employment attorney, is known as the go-to guy for restaurant workers involved in pay disputes.
He is currently involved in more than 50 restaurant cases that include conflicts with a Long Island pizzeria, a Korean fried-chicken joint, a Manhattan diner, a steakhouse chain, a Connecticut seafood spot and a Queens ice cream parlor.
While fighting for waiter pay might not sound like much of an enterprise, some of the 200-odd restaurant cases he has handled have produced multimillion-dollar settlements. Mr. Pechman takes a one-third cut.
He employs a staff of six lawyers, all but one of whom are native Spanish speakers capable of working with clients who don’t speak English.
Mr. Velandia’s case was typical. When he met with Mr. Pechman to discuss his situation, he discovered there was more to his case than he had realized.
His former employer, Serendipity 3, a popular Upper East Side restaurant known for its $1,000 “Golden Opulence Sundae,” was also requiring waiters to share tips with ice cream scoopers and to perform kitchen prep work during hours when they should have been on the floor earning tips, Mr. Velandia said.
But this wasn’t sufficient to establish a winning case. Before Mr. Pechman files a suit, he visits the restaurant for a meal to scope out its operations for violations and see how busy it is. “Settlements are often determined by ability to pay,” he said.
When Mr. Pechman stopped by Serendipity 3, he encountered a 90-minute wait for a table. The place was clearly doing well, he said.
He filed a suit on behalf of Mr. Velandia, and 32 other waiters joined the case. Last summer, in an agreement approved in a federal court in Manhattan, the parties settled for $975,000, including nearly $50,000 for Mr. Velandia.
Serendipity 3 declined to comment for this article. In its legal filings responding to the complaint, the restaurant denied all the allegations.
Mr. Velandia said that before meeting Mr. Pechman, he would have been satisfied with a much smaller personal demand. “They could have avoided all this for less than $2,000,” he said.
Mr. Pechman, who takes a variety of employment cases, had already practiced law for 25 years, first with a corporate firm and then with his own small firm in Midtown, when he got his first waiter case.
The defendant was Sparks Steak House in Manhattan, which waiters accused of taking money from the tip pool to pay kitchen staff.
The resulting $3.15 million settlement, in 2009, still stands as the largest ever for a single restaurant in a wage dispute case, according to Mr. Pechman. Sparks, which denied all allegations in its legal filings in the dispute, declined to comment.
After the win, word got around among the city’s waiters, and more suits followed. “If we put money in someone’s pocket, a friend tells a friend,” Mr. Pechman said.
Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, a trade group that includes restaurants, said most restaurants strive to create a positive workplace culture and follow complex labor laws. “Cases are cost prohibitive to defend, so they deny allegations and settle the case to avoid costly litigation,” he said.
Not every suit produces a big award. In a case against an Indian restaurant in Manhattan, for example, Mr. Pechman said he obtained a $1.4 million judgment that he will never collect because the restaurant closed. In other cases, suits have ended with defendant restaurants declaring bankruptcy, he said.
Last week, Mr. Pechman met with two clients who had worked as waiters at the Coney Island location of Wahlburgers, a national burger chain. Vanessa Morales and Angel Rivera said the franchise withheld tips, failed to pay overtime and issued bum paychecks
After their suit was filed in 2016, however, the Coney Island franchise went under before reopening under new ownership. Mark Stumer, a lawyer representing the former franchise owners, said the allegations are false. “We believe the action has no merit and we believe the case is going to get dismissed,” he said. Mr. Pechman’s solution is to sue the franchiser in addition to the franchisee.
In a statement, a Wahlburgers spokesman said, “We were saddened to hear about negative experiences any employees may have had working with this former independent franchise operator.” In federal court in Brooklyn, the company said that it has no responsibility for the alleged violations. “This is an important case nationally,” Mr. Pechman told Ms. Morales and Mr. Rivera at the meeting. “The judge will decide if the franchiser is responsible for the legal failings of the franchisee. It’s a test case.”
“It could be, at the end of the day, we end up with zero,” he added. “Did you just get depressed? Because I did,” said Ms. Morales.
She and Mr. Rivera said they have spent years taking days off work and rearranging their schedules to participate in the case.
But it will be worth it even if they get nothing, said Mr. Rivera, because it is a matter of principle.
“We’re not asking for what we don’t deserve,” he said. “We’re asking for what belongs to us.”