HARTFORD, CT — House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz said the House plans to override Gov. Ned Lamont’s veto of a bill regarding guidelines for restaurant workers regardless of whether the Senate will follow suit.
At odds with his brothers and sisters in Connecticut’s labor unions Aresimowicz thinks there’s a lot of confusion about what the bill does or doesn’t do.
“Unfortunately the labor unions have sent letters opposing the veto override and asking members of the General Assembly to sustain the veto. My personal opinion, I think that’s a mistake,” Aresimowicz said.
The Connecticut AFL-CIO and the Connecticut State Building Trades Council issued a statement Friday in support of Lamont’s veto. They said overriding the bill “would eliminate wage protections for Connecticut’s tipped workers,” and it “was passed without debate or public hearings.”
Aresimowicz said they are trying to help small businesses who have been hit with class action lawsuits because of the advice the Department of Labor has been giving them since 2015.
“To be told you are being sued for something you were told to do is preposterous,” House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said.
She said repassing this bill is the very least the General Assembly can do to show business in Connecticut “we have your back.”
“This is not an issue of business vs. workers. This is a workers bill,” Klarides said.
But Lamont, the former small business owner, said he vetoed the bill because it would deprive restaurants workers who have sued restaurants their day in court.
“Restaurant workers across our state say they went to work under rules that promised them a higher wage than they were paid,” Lamont said. “The legislature knows this bill is unfair and likely illegal.”
Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, said restaurants have been operating for years under the 80/20 guidelines.
Those guidelines essentially say restaurant owners don’t need to keep track of all the sidework servers do when they’re not waiting on customers as long as they don’t spend more than 20 percent of their time on those tasks.
Barry Jessurun, owner of Green Valley Hospitality, which is one of the restaurant groups being sued said they employ about 140 people.
He said they didn’t even know there were inconsistencies in the law until they were sued.
“We’re an important employer in our state,” Jessurun said. “And something like this could be very devastating to our business to the point that we might have to close to pay the potential fines.”
Jessurun’s company which operates several restaurants including the Vanilla Bean Cafe in Pomfret and 85 Main in Putnam, was sued on May 31. The class action lawsuit filed by a server says that the restaurant didn’t keep track of the time a server spent waiting on customers and doing side work like filling ketchup bottles or rolling silverware so it should have paid its servers the full minimum wage.
When a server or bartender is waiting on a tipped customer their hourly wage is lower than the minimum wage. The lawsuit says the restaurant owners deprived these servers of possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars by failing to keep track of the time differential.
Aresimowicz said Jessurun and other restaurant owners should not be punished for following the advice the Department of Labor gave.
“It’s just not fair. It’s not fair,” Aresimowicz said.
The restaurant issue never had a public hearing and was added to HB 5001 late in the legislative session.
“There was a mistake made and we’re trying to rectify it,” Aresimowicz said.
He said the issue was raised and the lawsuits were being filed and they felt they had to act.
If that was the case then Lamont said they shouldn’t have passed it as a strike all amendment in the waning hours of the last day of the legislative session.
“Had the bill been raised earlier in the session, we could have vetted the proposal fully through the committee process and provided the public an opportunity to be heard,” Lamont said. “Prior to and since my veto, my staff has attempted to find a compromise that would strike the retroactive and illegal provisions of the bill.”
Lamont said the Department of Labor is not involved in these current lawsuits which are being brought by restaurant workers seeking to be made whole for wages they claim they are owed.
“These workers are entitled to their day in court,” Lamont said.
Ryan O’Donnell, an attorney for the Connecticut Restaurant Association, said any judge or jury will be looking at the regulations Connecticut currently has on the books, which are inconsistent with the guidelines printed by the Department of Labor in 2015.
“Rather than evaluating this case with a regulation that’s patently unfair to restaurant owners, we needed to take a step back and make sure we have a fair process,” O’Donnell said.
He said what’s currently “on the books is unfair,” and that’s why lawmakers voted to review it.
Aresimowicz said the state gave these restaurant owners bad advice.
“It was our advice they were following and not to step in and fix it would be rare,” Aresimowicz said.
The Senate has still not decided whether it will override the bill.
“The Senate Democrats will be caucusing on Monday to determine whether we plan to vote on any veto overrides sent to the Senate by the House,” Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said.
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said his caucus will support an override.
“This is just clarifying existing law and therefore we should override this bill,” Fasano told reporters earlier this week.