Second cook alleges wage theft at Stephen Starr restaurant

Sheila Maddali

Sheila Maddali

The U.S. Department of Labor is investigating complaints of wage theft at one of Stephen Starr’s Center City restaurants.

Philadelphia Magazine recently reported Robert Fitz, a former line cook at Talula’s Garden, alleges he and other co-workers were forced to work extra hours unpaid.

Now, another former line cook at the restaurant, Mark Tinkleman has come forward to make similar charges. At a press conference called by the Restaurant Opportunity Center, an advocacy group, Tinkleman said he was recently interviewed by an investigator with the U.S. Department of Labor looking into Fitz’s complaint. Tinkleman corroborated Fitz’s story.

“Clock-in time was at three [in the afternoon], but we started at one and we were explicitly told that’s the way it works,” Tinkleman said. Joanna Hawkins, a spokeswoman for the Department of Labor, confirmed the investigation, but could not say whether Tinkleman was interviewed. 

“I accepted it, I tolerated it and I didn’t speak out until now because it’s the kind of thing that a lot of people in the industry will shun you for,” Tinkleman said.

NWKCtinklemanstarrwagetheftx600Mark Tinkleman, (right), speaks at a press conference outside Philadelphia City Hall about wage theft in the restaurant industry. Tinkleman says he was forced to work two hours a day without pay when he was a line cook at Talula’s Garden, which is co-owned by restaurateurs Stephen Starr and Aimee Olexy. (Katie Colaneri/WHYY)

Starr claims the allegations are “untrue” and would constitute a violation of company policy. He said he does not know Fitz or Tinkleman personally. His STARR Restaurant Group — which includes more than 30 restaurants in Philadelphia, New York City, Atlantic City, Washington, D.C. and Florida — employs more than 4,000 people.

“We would do nothing — I would do nothing to jeopardize our reputation or standing by doing such a terrible thing as to make people work for free,” Starr said in a released statement. “It is not part of our policy. It never was.”

Starr, who co-owns Talula’s Garden with Aimee Olexy, declined to say whether he had been contacted by the Department of Labor regarding these allegations, but said the company is looking into the matter internally. Olexy did not respond to a request for comment. 

Workers say wage theft is an open secret in the restaurant industry. Sheila Maddali with the Restaurant Opportunities Center said more than 40 percent of Philadelphia restaurant workers surveyed in 2012 reported “working off the clock” without pay.

Hawkins with Department of Labor said nationwide, its wage and hours division receives more than 20,000 complaints about wages each year in many types of businessess and does not follow up on every one.

However, it does investigate thousands of complaints. Last year, it found violations in nearly 5,000 cases at restaurants alone and ordered the owners to return about $38 million in back pay.

Tinkleman, who no longer works at a restaurant, but still makes his living cooking, thinks it’s time for a culture change.

“The thing that stresses me out the most is seeing people in their early twenties or younger coming into this industry and gradually realizing that their time, their lives are not valued whatsoever,” he said. 

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