Before the novel coronavirus pandemic battered the restaurant industry, Elder Lopez says he worked many hours of overtime at Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen in Santa Fe.

Lopez made $12.50 an hour as a salad-maker and prep cook. He received a paycheck for the regular hours he worked.

But, he says, his boss, Soma Franks, always paid overtime wages in cash. Lopez says she told him overtime was best handled off the books so his additional income would be tax free.

Lopez’s job at Sweetwater ended in March, as the coronavirus spread. He began reviewing government programs to help those who were out of work.

It was then, he said, that he discovered his employer had never paid him time and half for overtime work. He said he’d only received his regular hourly rate.

Two former dishwashers at Sweetwater, Jose Carbajal and Armando Solorzano, tell the same story. They say all overtime at Sweetwater was transacted in cash, and the payments were only for their regular hourly wage of $12.50.

Writing in Spanish, the men filed complaints this week with the state Department of Workforce Solutions. They claim Sweetwater committed wage theft by shortchanging them on overtime pay, using cash so no paper trail existed.

Franks, a co-owner of Sweetwater, declined to comment on the allegations.

Asked if she had paid employees in cash for overtime work, Franks repeated that she had no comment.

Lopez, 46, has three children. Every dollar matters for a family on a tight budget, he said.

Carbajal said he worked up to 20 hours of overtime during two-week pay periods. Only belatedly did he realize he had received less money than he was entitled.

Carbajal, 40, said Sweetwater reduced his hours during the pandemic and terminated him June 13.

A Santa Fe-based advocacy group for immigrants, Somos Un Pueblo Unido, helped the former workers file their complaints with the state.

Somos this week also assisted six people who have made wage-theft complaints against Barrio Fries, a new fast-food restaurant in Española.

The owner of Barrio Fries, Eder Amado, never says no comment. He is a quote machine, claiming that at least three of his accusers want money for hours they never worked.

Amado said another complainant is his former business partner, Juan Contreras. By Amado’s account, Contreras has falsely listed himself on the state complaint as an hourly employee.

Amada said he and Contreras opened their restaurant April 25, in the midst of the pandemic. Amada said Contreras put $10,000 into Barrio Fries as a minority partner.

Their relationship soured in less than two weeks. Contreras quit the business May 3. Amado said Contreras was overwhelmed by the amount of work.

Contreras, in his complaint to the Department of Workforce Solutions, listed himself not as a boss but as an hourly employee of the restaurant. He says he was to make $15 an hour, and Amado owes him $2,205 in wages for work he did from April 23 to May 3.

Contreras also brought two of his relatives into the fledgling restaurant to work on recipes.

They are also seeking money for unpaid wages. One of them, Guadalupe Parga, shares a residence with Contreras. She told me she worked 130 hours in two weeks and was supposed to be paid $15 an hour.

Amado said Parga never clocked in or out. Parga also refused to provide a Social Security number and other documents so she could be added to the payroll, he said.

Once she quit the restaurant, she wanted to be paid in cash. Amado said he doesn’t do anything off the books.

Amado said he knew Parga only as the wife of Contreras, his erstwhile business partner. She didn’t come close to working 130 hours in two weeks, and every worker at the startup restaurant was making $9 an hour, Amado said.

Amado said Parga finally urged him to cut a check to another woman who had a Social Security number. In turn, the woman would pay Parga with Amado’s money.

“It’s fraud, and I’m not going to involve myself in any of that,” Amado said.

Another former worker, Emmanuel Cisneros, said Amado paid him with a personal money order for $74, shorting him by two-thirds of what he was due for two long days’ work as a cook.

Nowhere on the money order did Amado list any payroll deductions for Cisneros. But Amado admits he deducted money from workers’ pay for uniforms they were to wear on the job.

Amado’s failure to document deductions is an oddity for someone who says he goes by the numbers. So was using a money order instead of a payroll check.

Amado conceded he probably owes money to several of the former workers. He says he will pay them, but Contreras will get nothing.

If there’s a moral in this tale of two restaurants, it’s that not all cooking is done with farm-fresh ingredients.

Anyone looking for an unfair edge can cook the books, too.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

(14) comments

Stefanie Beninato

It is amazing how many industries the city and state want to support during COVID19 are major tax avoidance entities--cash being king in both industries. It seems that many "woke" restaurants or hotels owned by locals are the worst offenders. And guess what? People here without proper documents are undocumented--they are not illegal.

Mike Johnson

Very true, well said. And IMO, I don't care what you call these kind of people, they need to be deported and required to follow the law if they want to be Americans.

Carolyn DM

And exactly what are, "these kind of people", "Dr." Johnson?

Carolyn DM

And what exactly are, "these kind of people", "Dr.", Johnson?

Di Martin

Some restaurants in SF who got stimulus monies for their employees wages, withheld paying those employees because they knew they were illegal or undocumented. These employees suffered financially and struggled supporting their families because they were not eligible for unemployment. And are suffering still! Then for their employer to give them the shaft and not help them with the stimulus monies they received was heartless, not to mention fraud in itself. Grant it, being here illegally, is just that, illegal, but they are human beings trying to feed their families during these harsh times! During a time as this, during a time of uncertainty, shame on you! You know who you are and which restaurants you own! Very popular restaurants at that! Milan, this would be a topic worth investigating, if you dare! 🤔

Judith Haden

It is not a pretty picture. However, I don't think you should be judge and jury until the cases are tried....opinions are easy to toss around, let the final facts speak first before rushing to judgement. The press needs to be based on facts, not hearsay and opinion.

George Welland

In response to the comments about the "press rushing to judgement," I believe it is pretty self-evident that Mr. Simonich's column is an opinion column equal to an editorial... And in the spirit of the First Amendment towards expressing my opinion, I don't think Mr. Simonich went far enough and in this case the opinion pages of the local press (again in my humble opinion) didn't go far enough as judge and jury but should be executioner too! The outrage is the "authorities" will probably do very little more than try to collect taxes on unreported pay and give the victims a "wage order" they can try to get a court to enforce before the offender hightails it out of town or bankruptcy court!

Ted Nugent

Someone needs to report Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen to IRS for an audit.

Carolyn DM

You can be guaranteed that the Dept. of Workforce Solutions will be doing an audit, and I wouldn't doubt that the State and IRS will also.

Carolyn DM

You can pretty much be guaranteed that the Dept. of Workforce Solutions will be doing an audit and the State and the IRS will probably follow. What would be interesting to know is how they handled these cash payouts on the books.

Steve Spraitz

40 years ago, as a unionized tile setter , we got straight pay cash/ non taxable income instead of mandatory double time which if double time was taxed , which happened once resulting in taking home a 40 hour week plus 16 hours double time ,less pay after increased taxes then j took home in a regular 40 hour week

Do the math, you’d be surprised . Get the weekly and bi - weekly tax table list for withholding from the IRS and then complain , Before you jump to biased conclusions they may have gotten a better deal , but are not intelligent enough to figure it out

Judith Senda

Just did the math, Steve, and I call BS.

If you were single, making $30K 40 years ago in 1980, you were in a marginal tax bracket of 44%. 16 hours of double time would put you at an amortized income of $54K and move you to the 55% bracket for that week. Your take home is still 44.6% higher than a normal week.

So if your boss withheld all your incremental income, and you believed this story, guess who the “ not intelligent enough to figure it out” guy was in this scenario. (Hint: it was you.)

George Welland

Dear Union Tile Setter - I suggest you do the math and calculate what you've lost in benefits for Social Security, union pension, and heaven forbid workers' compensation if you had been injured after working off the books! Then of course there's the weekly benefit amount (WBA) under unemployment insurance (UI). Additionally, there are all the other taxpayers you cheated by colluding with your employer... cheating, actually you both broke the law and now you admit you evaded paying taxes (not smart)? The most incredulous aspect of all of this is the restaurant and hospitality industries' lobbyists are the ones that scream the loudest to keep state UI laws punitive in order to artificially depress payroll taxes. The least incredulous aspect of this whole sorry affair is that our state legislators turn a blind eye while the cash and perks keep coming under and over the table!

A little reading (of the tax code) to compliment your math skills would also show how many tax deferred programs have existed for decades to which one could legitimately contribute that real overtime pay (health, education, & retirement plans, etc.). Forty years ago cops and firemen where smart enough to work for "comp-time" on the books so at least it padded their pensions after they lived off the payouts for years before they retired (because it ended up being deferred compensation and paid out as normal salary even after they stopped working). This stopped awhile ago after cities and counties abused it so much that emergency services could never be provided if half the force ever decided to use half their comp-time in the same year; plus overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) were applied to other non-federal government workers; and basically more (working) people started paying the taxes they actually owed (the rich never have or ever will pay their fair share).

In closing, if your point is the working class is over-taxed, then you're darn right and I'd agree with you!

Carolyn DM

Overtime is not paid as double time. It's paid as time and a half.

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