With restaurants struggling to return to normal after more than two years of COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions and employee shortages, the last thing any restaurant owner wants to deal with is a costly lawsuit brought by a either a current or former employee, or potentially worse, by the Equal employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the U.S. Department of Labor.

In this series of articles, we outline potential employment law “kitchen fires” that restaurant owners should be aware of, and what steps they need to take to avoid lawsuits and the expense and business disruption they can bring.

According to the EEOC, the restaurant industry is the single largest source of sexual harassment claims in the U.S. And it accounts for more than one-third of all sexual harassment claims from women. Recent surveys show 90% of women and 70% of men working in restaurants have experienced some form of sexual harassment from either managers, co-workers or customers. On a regular basis, well-known restaurant companies and celebrity chefs are being hit with sexual harassment claims as well as high-dollar judgments. Part One of the series covers the laws against sexual harassment in the workplace, how to prevent it in a restaurant environment, and how proper policies and training can protect against liability.

Part Two looks at restaurant liability under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This is the law that requires employers to pay at least minimum wage and time and a half for all hours worked over 40 in the workweek. The FLSA can be a complicated and confusing law, and it is common for employers to make mistakes. Lack of compliance in a restaurant setting with multiple employees can lead to collective actions, which could potentially bankrupt a business. Part Two also looks at recent changes to the “tip credit” method of paying employees, misclassifying employees as exempt “managers,” liability for employees “working off the clock,” child labor laws, and what to do when faced with a Department of Labor investigation.

Part Three examines the federal statutes against employment discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, sex and age, the risks of liability for “English only” policies, and the legal requirement for restaurants to make reasonable accommodations on the basis of religion and disability.

Part Four looks at other easily overlooked employment law kitchen fires, such as a restaurant’s failure to comply with the federal immigration law by correctly completing Form I-9’s for each employee, the potential liability in conducting background checks on potential employees, and how failing to openly display required employment law posters in your restaurant can be a costly and strategic mistake.

In addition to avoiding expensive legal problems, compliance with relevant employment laws might also help to address the restaurant headache of high employee turnover. This series addresses compliance with federal law, but many states have their own varying employment standards. Where appropriate, restaurants should engage counsel for assistance in complying with federal, state and local laws.