Former employees sue Maru Sushi over payment practices

Lawsuit accuses Maru of forcing employees paid a tipped minimum wage to share gratuity with employees paid minimum wage; restaurant says service fee is legal

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Maru, a chain of Michigan-based sushi restaurants, has been hit with a class-action lawsuit over the way its tipped employees are paid.

At its six restaurants across Michigan, including the one in downtown Detroit, Maru Sushi adds a 10-percent service fee to every bill. According to the restaurant signage, this service fee is split among the servers and back-of-house staff. Any tips given in addition to the automatically charged 10 percent are kept by the server.

Plaintiffs say this is unfair because the servers make a lower minimum wage than that earned by back-of-house staff members. They say Maru’s policy forces servers who are paid the state’s tipped minimum wage — $3.52 an hour — to share the 10 percent service fee with employees who are paid at least the non-tipped Michigan minimum wage, which is $9.25.

Attorney Michael Hanna of the law firm Morgan & Morgan filed a suit on behalf of former employee Kelsey Daoust. Since the filing, three other former servers elected to opt-in to the suit.

“We will pursue this federal lawsuit as class-action and on a class-wide basis because it appears that every server that worked at Maru was subjected to the same policy at issue,” Hanna said.

Restaurant group counsel Sean F. Crotty of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP said in a statement, “Maru values and respects all of its employees and is committed to ensuring they are treated fairly. The service fee helps restaurants such as theirs to increase the wages of all the workers involved in the customer experience and is entirely in compliance with the law.”

According to the complaint, Maru had a policy requiring all servers to “participate in an illegal tip pool, whereby servers are required to share tips with employees who do not customarily and regularly receive tips, and are not eligible to share in a tip pool.” It says Maru stopped referring to this practice as “tip pooling” in October of 2016. Instead the restaurant introduced the service charge.

The U.S. Department of Labor says service charges are not tips.

The plaintiffs also take issue with the way the restaurant chain explains the service fee to customers. A small note left on the restaurants’ tables reads: “we have instituted a 10 percent service charge — so please tip 10 percent less than you normally would. This service charge will go toward all of our hard-working staff, including your server.”

Tip-pooling and automatic service fees have been a hot topic the past few years. Rose’s Fine Foods in Detroit has been applauded for its tipping policy, which reportedly pools all the tips and splits them among all the diner employees, who are all paid at least $10 per hour. Last year, the Mulefoot Gastropub in Imlay City did away with tipping completely and instead added a 20-percent service charge to all checks; that fee is split among staff in the form of wages and commissions.

Twitter: @melodybaetens