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Workers to hit Darden with wage, discrimination claims

By Lisa Baertlein

(Reuters) - A restaurant workers group said it will sue Darden Restaurants Inc in federal court in Chicago on Tuesday, accusing the company's high-end Capital Grille steakhouse chain of racial discrimination and violations of state and federal labor laws.

The action will pit Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), a vocal advocate on industry wages and working conditions, against one of the largest and most respected U.S. restaurant companies.

The lawsuit will charge that white workers have lucrative "front-of-house" positions such as waiter or bartender, while many lower paying "back-of-the-house" jobs like washing dishes or preparing food are given to people of color, said ROC, which will bring the lawsuit on behalf of members who are Capital Grille employees in Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C.

The complaint also will allege that Capital Grille forced employees to work without pay, did not provide rest breaks to workers and forced tipped employees to share their tips with non-tipped workers, ROC said.

"Restaurant workers deserve a living wage and to be treated with dignity," said Daisy Chung, co-director of ROC of New York.

Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers said the company repeatedly has asked ROC for details about the allegations and that it has received no response.

"If they have something specific, we want to look into it," said Jeffers, who added that Darden employees have multiple channels for filing grievances against the company.

Darden is the nation's largest full-service restaurant operator, with more than 1,900 outlets and about 179,000 employees in the United States and Canada.

Best known for its Olive Garden and Red Lobster chains, it is considered to be one of the country's best-run restaurant companies. It also is one of the few large U.S. corporations led by a chief executive who is a minority.

Darden's roughly 45 Capital Grille steakhouses are the most upscale eateries in the company's portfolio.

"Darden Restaurants is very proud of the work environment that it creates for employees," said Jeffers, who added that the Orlando-based company made Fortune magazine's list of "100 best companies to work for" in 2011 and 2012.

Restaurant workers account for nearly one in 12 U.S. private sector employees, according to ROC, which says its mission is to improve compensation and working conditions for low-wage restaurant employees.

Lawsuits over wages are not uncommon in the U.S. restaurant industry. ROC, which organizes workers but is not a union, has sued and picketed numerous restaurants as part of its advocacy work.

Most notably, it recently has been involved in a high-profile legal skirmish with celebrity chef Mario Batali, whose restaurants include Del Posto in New York City and Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles.

(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Matt Driskill)

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