Maybe it's the U.S. Labor Department investigation into pay violations at Chickie's & Pete's.

Or maybe it's the string of class-action lawsuits piling up in federal court against the chain of popular sports bars - suits alleging tip-skimming that could yield several million dollars in damages.

Or maybe it's simply an employer tacking up new personnel policies and sending out several-thousand-dollar employee-refund checks to fix mistakes in the payroll system.

Whatever the motive, Chickie's & Pete's owners are hustling to contain the fallout from recent lawsuits that have more than 60 former and current employees as plaintiffs.

"His business went from a mom-and-pop restaurant into an empire with hundreds of employees making him what he is today," said an ex-bartender and plaintiff, who asked not to be identified because he feared retaliation from owner Peter Ciarrocchi Jr. "We should get what we helped him get."

Through a spokesman, Kevin Feeley, Ciarrocchi declined to comment on the lawsuits except to say that the company would vigorously contest them in court.

Feeley said the company was cooperating with the Labor Department investigation into employee wages.

Ciarrocchi's parents founded Chickie's & Pete's in 1977 as a Mayfair taproom. Dubbed the nation's top sports bar by ESPN, there are now 10 outlets, plus stands at Lincoln Financial Field and Citizens Bank Park, employing 1,000, Feeley said.

Ciarrocchi, 55, part-owner of the Philadelphia Soul arena-football team, built Chickie's & Pete's on its signature "crab fries."

And, the lawsuits say, by stiffing workers for part of their tips.

"It was always a frustration," said Andrew Laplante of Pennsauken, a former server at Chickie's & Pete's at Philadelphia International Airport and a plaintiff in the first case, filed in December.

At the end of their shifts, servers had to pay what was known as "Pete's tax" - 2 percent to 4 percent of gross cash and credit sales - into a tip pool, the lawsuits say.

Some money went to cover credit-card fees or to tip busboys and bartenders, but some, employees said, simply was unaccounted for. If employees didn't earn enough in cash tips to cover "Pete's tax," they were ordered to withdraw it from a bank machine or face firing.

In November 2011, Philadelphia enacted a law making it illegal to take tip money to cover any portion of a credit-card fee.

Recently, many servers received checks with a letter signed Pete. "We have concluded that doing the right thing by our employees means that a portion of the tip pool for 2012 should be refunded . . . " the letter said.

On Monday, the company posted signs saying it would stop paying $15 a shift and start paying $2.83 an hour in Pennsylvania and $2.13 in New Jersey - minimum wage for tipped workers. At $15 for an eight-hour shift, workers did not earn minimum wage, a violation of the law.

Laplante's case was filed by Louis Pechman of Berke-Weiss & Pechman L.L.P., one of two New York firms filing suits, as well as O'Brien, Belland and Bushinsky L.L.C. in Cherry Hill.