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.