This story was originally published on Civil Eats.
Jillian Melton was paid just $2.13 per hour — the lowest legal cash wage in the U.S. — during her six years at Seasons 52 Wine Bar and Grill in Memphis, Tennessee. The rest of her income came from tips, which could vary widely depending on the day of the week or the whim of the customer.
Melton also says she witnessed discrimination on the job — not only from customers but also from the store’s management. As a young, lighter-skinned Black woman of mixed heritage, Melton says she was often assigned by her managers to the busiest, most front-facing sections of the restaurant along with her white and young coworkers. But her older and darker-skinned Black coworkers were given emptier sections where tips would only slowly trickle in — a pattern of discrimination based on colorism, racism, and ageism that resulted in her bringing home vastly more tips.
“There would be nights where I made $300 to $400 and my coworker would go home with $60 or $80. And that was normal,” said Melton.
Even though Melton benefited financially from this practice, she spoke out about the inequity to the management. But she says they weren’t receptive. She doesn’t believe her managers were intentionally discriminating, but “their idea of professionalism was based off of colorism and ageism.”
Practices like this are part of a wider pattern of discriminatory wage practices across the restaurant industry, which leads to unequal pay based on race and gender, and increased sexual harassment, according to the advocacy group One Fair Wage. Last year, the group sued Darden Restaurants, the owner of Seasons 52, for violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which protects workers from discrimination, including from practices that unintentionally result in a “disparate impact.”
Today, One Fair Wage, which represents over 200,000 service workers and 800 restaurant workers, is filing an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, to a lawsuit that was dismissed last year. The group alleges that Darden pays the lowest legal cash wage in every state and lacks policies to redistribute tips between workers, facilitating a discriminatory system where the civil rights of people of color and women are violated.
“Intentionally or not, these policies conspire to create both a work environment that is rife with discrimination with sexual harassment,” said Jason Harrow, a constitutional lawyer at Gerstein Harrow representing One Fair Wage.
The case was previously dismissed by a U.S. District Judge who determined that One Fair Wage could not sue another person’s employer under Title VII. If this is the case, however, it would effectively render Darden immune from Title VII lawsuits, given that its employees are barred from participating in lawsuits in the company’s contracts. If the appeal is denied, “then Darden has written itself out of federal law,