Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Rep. Rosa Rebimbas debates the bill in the House (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT—Legislation requiring the state to create new rules regarding how restaurants pay their workers passed the House and Senate Wednesday.

The House passed the bill 125-11 and the Senate passed it 27-3.

It now goes to Gov. Ned Lamont, who is expected to sign it into law.

Lamont, who initially vetoed similar legislation in July, applauded passage of the legislation Wednesday.

“This legislation is the result of collaborative discussions between our administration, lawmakers, and representatives of both sides, and it strikes the appropriate balance to protect the wages fairly earned by restaurant workers while providing relief to restaurant owners who may have complied with unclear or conflicting guidance from the prior administration’s Department of Labor,” Lamont said.

The legislation approved Wednesday included language that would require the Department of Labor to hire three employees to monitor the program. It also requires the department to audit 75 restaurants a year.

“We’re looking for the percentage of compliance (with the new law) and any particular patterns of reasons why restaurants can’t comply” Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D- Bridgeport, said

Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, said everyone “didn’t get everything they wanted but this is a fair compromise.”

Rebimbas added that the legislation tried “to be respectful of the Department of Labor’s time,” which is part of the reason additional staff is part of the language.

In the summer, Lamont vetoed a bill that sought to retroactively change the law so restaurant workers would not be able to sue restaurant owners for failing to properly keep track of their hours. It had passed both chambers unanimously.

Lamont called that bill “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 House and the Senate failed to override the veto in July, but came to a consensus with Lamont’s administration on a way forward.

“Importantly, it should be noted that the legislation enacted today avoids the constitutional pitfalls of the prior proposal, which I vetoed,” Lamont said after the House and Senate vote Wednesday. “It may have taken us a little bit to get to this moment, but in the end we were able to find a compromise to reform a complex area of law governing restaurant workers and do so with a fair result.”

The legislation passed Wednesday requires the labor department to write new regulations more accurately reflecting the guidance they’ve given to restaurants.

Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, has said restaurants have been operating for years under so-called 80/20 guidelines. Those guidelines essentially say restaurant owners don’t need to keep track of all the side work servers do when they’re not waiting on customers as long as they don’t spend more than 20% of their time on those tasks.

The legislation also would make it tougher for servers to organize class action lawsuits.

An estimated 22 lawsuits have been filed, mostly by one law firm, against a number of restaurants for not appropriately keeping track of servers’ hours based on DOL guidance.

The threat to the industry posed by the lawsuits prompted the Connecticut Restaurant Association to lobby for a change to the law.

Some worry that the bill doesn’t go far enough to protect the lowest paid restaurant workers.

“This doesn’t provide anymore protections for those who are exploited,” said Rep. Anne Hughes, R-Easton.

Others worry that the legislature is turning to already hard-pressed businesses in Connecticut to fix a problem they believe is rare.

“We need to stop turning to the private sector,” said Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, to fix Connecticut’s fiscal issues. “There is a tone deafness to where the economy is going. We need to leave them (business) alone.”

And some, such as Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, doesn’t understand the need for the new law because the majority of restaurants were following the old law.

Instead, he said, enforcement should be stepped up on the violators of what’s already on the books.

“Laws and regulations were not followed,” Winfield one of three senators who voted against the law said.

But Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, said she supported the bill and “am glad to see the compromise before us.”

Porter, who chairs the Labor and Public Employees Committee, said she understands that some, including herself, wishes the bill went further to protect employees in the restaurant industry. But she said the bill “brings us a little closer to where we want to be,” adding that in particular she believes the audits are an improvement over current law.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said the compromise legislation was an example of what the legislature can do when it works together on a bill.

“I believe this is a workers’ bill and a business bill. You can’t have workers if you don’t have business,” said Klarides.