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Hawaii ruling allows lawsuits for hotel tips
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HONOLULU (AP) — Lawsuits involving potentially thousands of hotel workers and millions of dollars can move forward because of a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling.

The court ruled Monday stalled lawsuits against various Hawaii hotels can proceed, making it possible for workers to pursue money collected by employers as service charges that were meant to be tips, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

"When patrons pay service charges, it looks like a gratuity and then they don't tip," said Shannon Liss-Riordan, an attorney whose firm has cases pending against Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton, Grand Wailea and Starwood. "We've brought cases like this across the country, but Hawaii is one of three states along with Massachusetts and New York that has an explicit law to address this issue."

Other attorneys also have cases pending, including against some of Hawaii's biggest resorts.

A Hawaii law passed in 2000 requires hotels and the food and beverage industry to disclose service charges so that workers receive gratuities meant for them.

On average, Hawaii hotels keep as much as one-fifth to one-sixth of all service charges, said Jim Bickerton, an attorney whose firm has at least six cases pending.

"This is a big step forward for fair labor because it makes it very clear that there's a price for employers to pay if they don't follow the law," Bickerton said. "Some of these hotels have hundreds of workers, and many work long hours."

He noted that some hotels, such as the Sheraton Waikiki, have always complied with the law and others have done so after the lawsuits.

Nick Bonar was a lead plaintiff in a case Bickerton's firm settled against the Fairmont Orchid. He received a check for $8,000.

"I felt like we've worked hard and only wanted what was rightfully ours," Bonar said.

The ruling is important for people who work for tips, said Unite Here Local 5, which represents many Hawaii hotel workers. The union has built tip protection into its current contracts, said Financial Secretary-Treasurer Eric Gill.