By MALIA WOLLAN
Published: April 9, 2010
When Dina Partridge of Pleasanton first put on her Hooter Girl uniform in 2004, she was the single mother of a toddler daughter, she said, and she felt lucky.
“There were 1,200 applicants, and I was one out of 80 that got hired,” she said. “I thought I was going to make a lot of money and meet celebrities.”
Instead, Ms. Partridge was shocked not by the randy customers, the short-shorts and the plunging necklines, but because she says she spent her own money for her uniforms, worked long shifts without breaks and did not get her share of tips.
Now, Ms. Partridge, 30, is the lead plaintiff in what is perhaps the least salacious lawsuit imaginable against a restaurant chain that capitalizes on female sexuality. The Bay Area has become the epicenter for a cascade of similar lawsuits against Hooters franchises across the state alleging that the restaurants failed to follow state law about its obligations to its workers.
“These are wage-and-hour class-action lawsuits,” said Burton F. Boltuch, the plaintiffs’ lawyer. “That’s it.”
There is a reason for this geographic concentration of suits.
“California is the most stringent and most expansive when it comes to pro-employee laws,” said William B. Gould IV, a law professor at Stanford University and the former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board.
Employment-related class-action lawsuits increased more than 300 percent in the state from 2000 to 2005, according to a 2009 report by the Judicial Council of California’s Administrative Office of the Courts. California leads the nation in the number of wage-and-hour class-action lawsuits, though Florida leads in per-capita filings, according to a report by Littler Mendelson, a national law firm.
The first Hooters restaurant in Northern California opened in San Francisco on Fisherman’s Wharf in 2003. It was owned by Nick and Shirley Trani and their son John.
The Tranis’ company, Hott Wings Inc., later opened Hooters restaurants in Campbell, Fremont, Dublin and San Bruno. In addition, the senior Tranis own other fast-food franchises in the Central Valley.
The Tranis’ lawyer, Matthew J. Ruggles, called the claims against the family, its franchises and its company “vastly overstated.” All three Tranis declined to be interviewed for this article.
The workers’ lawyers filed the case in May in Alameda County Court on behalf of 19 former Hooter Girls against four Bay Area Hooters franchises and their owners. Last month, Mr. Boltuch filed similar suits in Sacramento and Los Angeles Counties.
The common claim is that Hooter Girls had to buy their uniforms — the low-cut tank tops emblazoned with the Hooters owl, orange short-shorts, “Cal-Sun” footless pantyhose, white slouchy socks and high-top Skechers sneakers. State law requires businesses that mandate distinctive uniforms to pay for them.
“Not all states say, as California does, that a uniform that is distinctive must be paid for by an employer,” Mr. Gould said.
The suits also claim that Hooters employees were not given their adequate share of tips, were not granted legally mandated breaks for rest and meals, were not paid, or were paid insufficiently, for special events like bikini car washes and contests, golf tournaments, car shows and “winging” — when Hooters Girls went out to local businesses and gave out free chicken wings.
The three class-action lawsuits do not dwell on lasciviousness or push-up bras. In challenging labor practices at Hooters franchises, they highlight how stringent California’s wage and hour laws are, and how these minimum-wage and overtime standards make it easier to file large class-action suits against companies like Hooters in California than anywhere else.
Unlike federal law, California law requires employees to get rest periods, lunch breaks and compensation for any time worked over eight hours a day.
Federal wage and hour laws mandate that employees choose to be part of a class-action lawsuit, which means that labor lawyers must track down employees and convince them to join a case. But in California, current and former employees are presumed to be part of a class-action lawsuit, which means more plaintiffs and bigger settlements, Mr. Gould said.
Mr. Boltuch’s filing three class-action lawsuits against Hooters franchises means that he will be representing all the Hooter Girls, dishwashers and busboys in the state — more than 6,000 people.