Rusty Scupper firings fought Restaurant, closed for renovation, let go all its employees

January 18, 1996|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

On the day that officials of the Rusty Scupper restaurant had planned a news conference with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to announce a $1.5 million face lift, the company instead is confronting a court fight with employees who claim the Inner Harbor attraction broke federal labor law by firing them en masse without notice.

About 25 of the estimated 85 to 100 fired workers at the Rusty Scupper have retained a Towson lawyer to prepare a class-action suit claiming the company broke the Worker Adjustment Retraining and Notification Act, which requires companies with 100 or more workers to give 60 days notice before firing 50 workers or more.

Since the restaurant, which closed for renovation Monday, plans to reopen in May, the company could have avoided being in violation of the law by laying off its workers for 3 1/2 months, Julie Janofsky, attorney for the employees, said. Instead, the workers were summoned to a Jan. 10 meeting where they were told they would be fired Jan. 15 and would have to reapply for jobs when the restaurant reopens, waiter Ken Akers said.

"We had people who had been there 10, 12, 13 years," Mr. Akers said. "During the summer, you can make $1,200 a week. I think they thought we would go quietly, but we're not that type. We're all college graduates. This is just common sense."

Mr. Akers said the workers were told even those workers rehired in May will lose their seniority and won't be guaranteed their current wages and benefits.

Waiter Jeff Nelson said the company offered him a package worth less than $400 -- three weeks pay for 30 hours a week at minimum wage -- as a reward for nearly 10 years' work.

"I make more than that on a Saturday night," he said. "On a Monday night sometimes."

Officials of Select Restaurants Inc., the Ohio-based chain that owns the Rusty Scupper, did not return calls yesterday. Lance Johnson, the company's Cleveland-based attorney, declined to comment.

In a letter faxed to Ms. Janofsky yesterday, Mr. Johnson contended the law does not apply to the Rusty Scupper's closing because the restaurant does not have 50 full-time workers at its Baltimore location.

"We're quite sure there were more than 50 employees working more than 20 hours a week, which is what the law requires," Ms. Janof sky said.

The law defines part-time employees, who are not protected by the law, as those working fewer than 20 hours a week or who have worked in the plant slated for mass layoffs for less than six months of the year before the mass firing.

The law also applies to Select because it has far more than 100 employees at all its restaurants put together, Ms. Janofsky said.

If the employees prevail, they could get up to 60 days' back pay plus their attorneys' fees. The law does not specify whether the workers are entitled to their expected tip income. The company also would be subject to a civil penalty of $500 for each day the company is in violation of the law.

The workers contend management stopped filling openings before Christmas and operated with a short staff during the busy holidays, while management knew the restaurant would shut down during the slow season after Christmas, when workers would have trouble finding other jobs, Mr. Nelson said.

That left the staff feeling used when the news hit last week that they would lose their jobs five days later, he said.

"Had they given us a 60-day notice, it would have let us get other sources of income. But they wouldn't have had a staff for the holidays," Mr. Nelson said.

"I know them all," said Mr. Nelson, referring to management. "This is so devastating to me. I considered them all friends. This is wrong."

The news conference with Mr. Schmoke was canceled because the news had already broken about the renovation, in which Select plans to build business at the 13-year-old restaurant at 402 Key Highway by making its exterior more noticeable to people on the north shore of the Inner Harbor, according to Clinton R. Coleman, a spokesman for Mr. Schmoke.

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