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In response, Samir Gupte, Darden’s senior vice president of culture, wrote a letter to McClatchy's editor, which was also published by several newspapers. The letter counters Klinger’s argument, saying it doesn’t paint a true picture of the restaurant industry or Darden’s pay practices.

“The accessibility of the American Dream may be in question in our country as a whole,” he wrote, “but it is alive and well in the restaurant industry and is a passion and mission for us at Darden.”

For starters, Gupte said, “No one makes $2.13 an hour. It is a popular exaggeration and terribly misleading. Across all eight of our restaurant concepts, the average income for hourly employees ranges from $13 to $21 per hour.”

Rich Jeffers, a Darden spokesman, said Klinger’s argument does not take into account the fact that if tips do not bring a server’s pay up to the state minimum wage at least, employers must make up the difference.

In addition, seven states do not allow the tip credit, including California. In those states, tipped employees must be paid the minimum wage at least and receive tips on top of that. And many states that do allow a tip credit have a tipped wage rate that is higher than the federal minimum of $2.13, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Only about 20 percent of hourly employees within the Darden system are paid $2.13 per hour before tips, said Jeffers.

Gupte noted that many Darden employees are paid more than minimum wage. The hourly income of bussers, for example, often an entry-level job, is more than $11 per hour, which is higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

Gupte also noted the opportunities employees have to climb the ladder. More than half of restaurant managers are promoted from hourly positions, he argued, and nearly 100 percent of general managers and managing partners are internal promotions.

“Darden provides our employees a well-trodden path from an entry-level hourly position, with or without a college degree, to leadership roles,” he wrote.

“We understand we are not perfect — and we are always looking to get better,” Gupte concluded. “All we ask is that our critics make an effort to learn and understand the entire story instead of simply bending numbers and using half truths.”

Contact Lisa Jennings at lisa.jennings@penton.com.
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout