Suit alleges restaurant told staff to collect unemployment while working

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

A federal lawsuit filed by a former manager of Birmingham's Big Rock Chophouse alleges the restaurant instructed employees to continue working without pay while also collecting unemployment.

The complaint, filed Sunday in U.S. District Court by Molly Peralta, an employee since 2015 and manager since 2017, alleges that she was fired in retaliation for refusing to come to work while receiving unemployment benefits.

Birmingham's Big Rock Chop House

"On May 26, 2020, Plaintiff received a call from (her supervisor Vera) Day Rizer informing her that she was being terminated," reads the lawsuit. "Plaintiff immediately stated that she felt she was being retaliated against for refusing to come in and work while on unemployment. Day Rizer responded she was instructed by the owners that she 'had to make some cuts and had to take care of the people who had been there for the last three months with her.'" 

Voicemails left with Big Rock management were not immediately returned. A media representative reached Wednesday said she had not seen the complaint and was unable to comment.  

The lawsuit also says Peralta had exhibited symptoms related to COVID-19 in March and was instructed to come into work anyway. 

"On March 19, 2020, Plaintiff developed symptoms potentially related to COVID-19 including a fever, a sore throat, and an overall ill feeling," reads the lawsuit. "Plaintiff notified Day Rizer stated (sic) that she probably should not come in to work. Day Rizer instructed Plaintiff to come in anyways. Due to this pressure, Plaintiff did go into work."

The majority of the lawsuit makes allegations regarding management's instruction to have employees "commit fraud by performing unpaid labor for Defendant while collecting unemployment." Peralta alleges the employees were allowed to apply for unemployment benefits in the restaurant's sales office in mid-March just after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive order required restaurant dining rooms to close.

"After signing up for unemployment benefits, Plaintiff was then notified by Day Rizer that the restaurant was still going to be open for takeout and Plaintiff was expected to work," read the lawsuit. "Plaintiff responded 'okay great so I am not going to go on unemployment.' Day Rizer responded, 'no you’re going to continue to be on unemployment and we’re going to figure out the schedule.'"

The lawsuit explains that it is Peralta's belief that all but four of Big Rock Chophouse's employees accepted the proposition of working for free while fraudulently obtaining unemployment benefits. 

The lawsuit also alleges that in March "several employees were paid cash and instructed by Defendant not to clock into work so that they could collect unemployment."

Twitter: @melodybaetens