A wage battle is brewing in Buffalo at a popular waterfront restaurant.
Last week, employees of William K’s restaurant filed a lawsuit in federal court , accusing it of ignoring federal and state minimum wage laws.
Now some are wondering whether its owners are getting special treatment from the city.
“Restaurant owners are notorious for cutting corners, breaking the law,” said Nicole Hallett, the director of the University at Buffalo’s community justice clinic, which has filed suit on behalf of the employees.
The employees claim in the lawsuit that William K’s paid its servers $7.50 per hour even though Buffalo law requires all city contractors to pay a "living wage" of $13.06 per hour.
“The living wage ordinance was intended as a way to set higher standards for businesses doing business with the city,” Hallett said.
The lawsuit claims owners William and Molly Koessler -- who are members of a prominent Buffalo family -- asked the mayor for "assistance" with the issue, after which the city agreed not to enforce the law, but to change it.
“Rather than hold a business to that agreement, they decided they were going to change the law to excuse the business' failure to comply with the law in the first place,” Hallett said.
The law now has a carve-out that allows tipped workers to be paid less -- and some wonder whether the restaurant is receiving special treatment.
“I don't know what's happening behind closed doors, but I know most citizens aren't able to call up the mayor and have the mayor change the law,” Hallett said.
The lawsuit notes that the city owns the property and prior to signing the contract with the Koesslers, taxpayers funded $900,000 in improvements for the area near the Hatch restaurant.
Buffalo has now added this "tip credit" at the same time Gov. Andrew Cuomo is considering removing the credit from state law. Cuomo calls it a social justice issue which disproportionately affects women and people of color.
“Buffalo is moving in the wrong direction” on the issue, Hallett said. “The state is moving to protect restaurant workers.”
In a written statement, city spokesman Mike DeGeorge said, "The Living Wage Commission thought that the provision regarding tipped workers was a reasonable solution to the issue, which weighed heavily on the City's decision to move forward. No special treatment of any kind was given."
Sean Mulligan, an aide to Councilman David Rivera - who sponsored the change -- said in an email that Hallett’s characterization of the issue was “incorrect.”
“The City did not lower hourly wage for tipped workers at William K’s, it simply allowed for tips to be included in the living wage,” he wrote. “All employees, dishwashers, busboys, wait staff, etc must earn a living wage at William K’s.”
Molly Koessler did not respond to a message left for comment.