Former workers of a now-closed Old Country Buffet in Chicago are suing for back pay compensation after the restaurant abruptly shut down in early March.
Four former employees of the shuttered Old Country Buffet, located at 6125 N. Lincoln Ave., filed a federal lawsuit in April against the restaurant's operator, Texas-based Food Management Partners.
The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, alleges the company failed to notify employees about the layoffs 60 days before closing the restaurant on March 7. Under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, a 60-day layoff notice is required when a business closing will result in the loss of 50 or more job positions that required more than 20 hours a week.
At the now-closed Old Country Buffet on Lincoln Avenue, there were 57 employees who worked more than 20 hours a week, according to the lawsuit.
"A number of the people who worked there were employed for over ten years," said Carolyn Morales with Arise Chicago, a worker center assisting the laid off Old Country Buffet workers. "This is not high school students' part-time job. This is people's profession."
Debora Alvarez, who worked at the Old Country Buffet, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
"My two sons and myself were working here, so the three of us in the family lost their jobs," Alvarez said through a translator at a press conference last week. "There was no previous warning, there was no advanced notice. They just called me one hour before entering at 6 o'clock in the morning that I shouldn't present myself to work.
"I came anyway and I found the location closed," she said. "It was a big crisis for the family because we divide our bills among the three wage earners, and all of a sudden, neither one of (us) had any money to pay anything."
Workers, some of whom are still searching for new employment, claim they are due 60 days of pay as a result of the company's alleged WARN Act violations. Their lawsuit also seeks penalties and legal fees as well as class-action status to cover all workers who were allegedly laid off without proper notice at other restaurants operated by Food Management Partners in February and March.
The Old Country Buffet in question closed the same day Buffets LLC, owned by Food Management Partners, filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. It was the third bankruptcy filing from the company since 2008. Buffets LLC operates several steakhouse restaurants and buffet chains, including Old Country Buffet, Hometown Buffet, Fire Mountain and others.
In February, Buffets LLC closed 74 restaurants and shuttered another 92 eateries just before the bankruptcy filing in March. According to Arise Chicago's estimates, the restaurant closures impacted over 6,000 workers across the United States.
The lawsuit alleges that Food Management Partners "violated the rights of employees at other sites it shut down on a permanent basis during the same period of time, i.e., early 2016."
"Plaintiffs and other employees in the proposed nationwide class are entitled to 60 days of pay, plus penalties, and legal fees," the lawsuit states.
Food Management Partners is expected to file its official response to the workers' lawsuit on June 24, according to Arise Chicago.
Morales said Arise Chicago is hopeful the plaintiffs will eventually receive their 60 days of pay, noting that other local workers, including those who were employed at the now-shuttered Rolf's Patisserie in Lincolnwood, have successfully sued over WARN Act violations in similar situations.
She argued that Food Management Partners likely saw the restaurant closures coming and could have given proper layoff notices to workers in Chicago and elsewhere.
"There could have been notices. There could have been some sort of notification to ... give people the opportunity to rebuild their lives and seek employment elsewhere," she said. "Frankly, the company just needs to pay, needs to do what's right by the law and (what's right) morally."
Food Management Partners did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
Image: Arise Chicago