Catering hall workers protest GOP gratuities bill

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More than two dozen catering hall employees held a protest Tuesday in front of the Garden City offices of State Sen. Jack Martins, calling on the Republican to drop a bill they claim would shortchange servers out of gratuities.

Attorneys for waiters, dishwashers and service staff have filed class-action lawsuits against Long Island catering halls, seeking service charges they say customers believed would go to staff. Martins' bill would give immunity to the caterers unless they told customers in writing that service charges were gratuities.

"I never saw a dime of the service charges," said John Michael Cohan, 23, of Huntington, who has worked as a waiter, bartender and busboy for several area catering halls.

Freddie Chavarria, 34, of Huntington, a former employee of Crest Hollow Country Club, said, "These gratuities belong to the hardworking people," not to the catering-hall owners.

Martins (R-Mineola) said his bill was crafted with input from labor and business interests. "In fact, it passed the Senate last year with bipartisan support and was sponsored in the Assembly by many of our Assembly members from here on Long Island," Martins said in a statement. Martins first sponsored the bill -- which also would clarify the difference between a service charge and a gratuity -- last year. It passed the Republican-controlled Senate, but died in the Democrat-run Assembly.

Martins introduced the bill again this month. A similar bill was introduced by Assemb. Phillip Goldfeder (D-Far Rockaway) and is co-sponsored by three Long Island Democrats: Assemb. Michelle Schimel of Great Neck, Assemb. Charles Lavine of Glen Cove and Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg of Long Beach.

In 2008, the New York State Court of Appeals, the highest state court, ruled that a caterer's service charge must go to pay staff if a customer had a reasonable expectation that it would. The caterers are facing dozens of lawsuits with costs dating back to 2004.

Martins has said state labor department guidelines before the court ruling did not treat service charges as gratuities, and that the catering facilities "were doing nothing other than following the law as it existed at the time."

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