Torrance Benihana servers allege sexual harassment and say they were tricked into giving up tips

More than a dozen servers at the Benihana restaurant in Torrance are suing the steakhouse chain, alleging a wide range of Labor Code violations as well as sexual harassment, sexual orientation discrimination and the misuse of tips for the benefit of cooks, court papers show.

The complaint was filed Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court against Benihana National Corp., seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, as well as an injunction preventing management from manipulating tips through a so-called “tip pool.”

“The result of the tip pool was that (management) converted a substantial amount of each plaintiffs’ tip … to their own use by tricking, manipulating, coercing and intimidating the servers and each plaintiff into relinquishing this money, which (management) used for their own purpose and benefit by laundering the money through a tip pool and funding pay raises for the cooks,” the suit alleges.

A Benihana representative did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

All of the servers allege they were either denied overtime or not compensated for missed meal and rest breaks.

“Throughout these plaintiffs’ employment, defendants failed to provide them with itemized wage statements that properly and accurately itemized the number of hours they worked at the effective regular rates of pay and the effective overtime rates of pay,” the suit alleges.

Melynda Cohen alleges she was continually harassed sexually by other employees at the Hawthorne Boulevard restaurant, including her manager, who she says commented about her weight but did not make similar remarks to male servers.

The manager also told Cohen’s husband that he could “do better than being married to Melynda Cohen,” the suit alleges.

According to the complaint, server Mouhmed Younes was often discriminated against because by other workers because of his sexual orientation and harassed because of his body piercings, even though female employees with body piercings were not treated the same way.

The plaintiffs’ allege their complaints to management and human resources went unresolved.

Benihana has a unique business model in that cooks, who prepare food tableside, are part of the dining experience and cannot be easily replaced, according to the suit.

“Rather than increase the dining costs, and rather than reduce their profit margin, (management) devised a scheme whereby they would steal the servers’ tip money under the guise of utilizing a tip pool,” the suit alleges.

Under the tip pool, servers were required to contribute about 20% of the gross sales from their shift, according to the complaint.

“As a result, the servers were obligated to pay money to the purported tip pool irrespective of whether he or she had received a tip from the customer,” the suit alleges.

According to the plaintiffs, management told each server that if he or she was unable to generate enough in tips to pay the required amount on more than one occasion, that person would be fired. If the server was unable to meet the minimum contribution requirement through his or her tips, he or she was obligated to make up the shortfall out of his or her own pocket, the suit alleges.

The servers often had to pay 100% of the tips received into the tip pool, meaning they were now only able to keep and maintain possession often 10% at most of their tips, while the rest went to pay the cooks to keep them from going on strike, as they did before, according to the suit.

The plaintiffs allege the cooks were not obligated to contribute any portion of their tips to the tip pool, but they still received a portion of the tip pool money.

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