ENFIELD, CT — Gov. Ned Lamont wrote legislative leaders Monday suggesting a path forward for legislation impacting the restaurant industry and its workers that he vetoed on July 12.
Lamont said he thinks he’s found a solution that all sides can agree upon, but one of the four legislative caucuses wants to see a few tweaks before moving forward with a special session next month.
“We’re hoping we can get to a resolution,” Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said Tuesday.
He said his caucus is still negotiating the final draft and declined to elaborate on any “tweaks” his caucus would like to see, but agreed it was necessary to move “quickly.”
Senate Deputy Minority Leader Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, said the Senate Republican caucus is on board with what Lamont’s office has proposed. He said the Senate Democrats are holding up a deal because they don’t believe it’s friendly enough to labor.
“If something doesn’t happen restaurants will close,” Witkos said.
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said he fears “that the stranglehold of certain union representatives has made the Senate Democrat caucus fearful of taking any action on this issue. This is beyond disappointing, as the people who will suffer most in this situation if nothing is done are the restaurant workers across our state.”
Looney maintained that they were working toward a resolution and want to move forward next week with a public hearing on the bill, which never received a public hearing during the legislative session.
At an unrelated event Tuesday, Lamont said when the House and the Senate passed the bill unanimously they didn’t pay much attention to the workers. He finds it strange there would be any objections now.
“I was the guy who brought the red flag,” Lamont said.
The bill Lamont vetoed would have made it harder for waitresses and servers to sue restaurant owners for wages they should have been paid under current labor laws.
Lamont vetoed the bill “ because it is an illegal attempt to retroactively deprive restaurant workers of 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.”
The restaurant industry says a law firm found a loophole and sought to exploit it. They said the legislation Lamont vetoed sought to correct the problem and ratify what was written in the Department of Labor guidelines.
Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, has 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.
Lamont’s latest proposal eliminates the double damage award against restaurant owners who can prove they acted in good faith by relying on the written guidance from the Department of Labor. That guidance said restaurant owners didn’t have to keep track of servers time if they only spent 20 percent of their time doing so-called “sidework” like filling ketchup bottles or rolling silverware.
He has suggested that rather than repealing the regulations the Department of Labor should write new regulations.
“In addition, DOL would be required to consult with all relevant stakeholders, including representatives of the restaurant industry, restaurant employees, service employees and other interested stakeholders,” Lamont wrote. “Lastly, my proposal would clarify the circumstances under which class actions alleging violations of the existing regulations could proceed.”
In July, lawmakers thought it would take 12 to 15 months for the department to write new regulations and that the litigation filed against several restaurants would put them out of business before reaching a conclusion.
Lamont said Tuesday that it should take that long.
“We’ve all got agreement on this now. I just the House and the Senate to ratify it,” he said.
He said the new legislation will provide “clarity and certainty to the restaurant industry so there’s no more confusion.”
The class action lawsuits continue to be filed. At least two new ones have been filed this month.
The Connecticut Restaurant Association urged quick action.
“Connecticut’s restaurants are a major part of our state economy, employing more than 119,000 people across the state who make an average of $25 per hour,” Dolch said. “Taking action soon in a special session to eliminate this confusion can send an important message to these local businesspeople that Connecticut government hears their concerns and wants to create a fairer and more stable business climate. We urge state leaders to act soon.”