"It's an open investigation," said Brian Johnson, the Department of Labor's regional enforcement director for its Wage and Hour Division.
Declining to discuss the specifics of the case, Johnson said restaurant workers regularly fall victim to wage-and-hour law violations.
"They are low-wage employees, and generally the Department of Labor has found that these vulnerable workers are the ones that are most likely to be paid in violation of the law," he said.
The problem is national, said Louis Pechman, who filed the first lawsuit on behalf of former employee Andrew Laplante of Pennsauken. Pechman's Manhattan firm, Berke-Weiss & Pechman L.L.P., has litigated cases around the United States and runs a website, www.waiterpay.com, that provides wage information and solicits clients.
"There are a number of reasons why there are problems in the restaurant industry," he said. "First, it's an all-cash business. Second of all, it's a low-margin business, and third, there are complicated rules relating to the payment of employees."
The law says tips belong to the employee. However, servers and bartenders often contribute to a "tip pool" that provides extra money to food runners and bus staff. Tip pools cannot be used to pay cooks, dishwashers, or managers.
The lawsuits said Chickie's & Pete's required servers to contribute 4 percent of their customers' tabs before tips to a tip pool, but only redistributed some of the money to other staffers, pocketing the rest.
Since the lawsuits were filed in December and January, Chickie's & Pete's has revamped its tip policy and mailed checks to servers, refunding some of the money they contributed to tip pools in 2012.
Contact Jane Von Bergen at firstname.lastname@example.org, @JaneVonBergen on Twitter, or at 215-854-2769. Read her workplace blog at www.philly.com/jobbing.