Waging War

Posted on 30. Aug, 2011 by in Features

Nineteen-year-old Anna Aranda knew the price of almost everything in Mario’s Discount Furniture after her month of working there. For eleven hours a day, seven days a week, she rang up purchases and wrote them down. 50” plasmas? $1099. Astoria couches? A steal at $1400. But the one price tag that Aranda will never forget, and the store’s biggest discount of all, was the one attached to herself: “They didn’t pay me,” she says. “Nothing. Not even commissions.”

Aranda, a petite woman with a straight-at-you stare and a smile that emerges when she’s hard at work, recounts her version of her time at Mario’s while wiping glue off her fingers. She is busy building papier-mâché puppets for a May Day workers’ march in downtown New Haven; since quitting Mario’s, she works a part-time job that leaves her with time to volunteer. She found that her undocumented status made it difficult to procure another full-time position. She switches between Spanish and English as she recalls her frustrated attempts to get payment from Mario’s. Like several others interviewed for this story, Aranda spoke through a translator. “I started asking [my boss] about my money. He was like, ‘tomorrow’ and ‘tomorrow’ and ‘tomorrow.’” By the time she quit at the end of March, after four unpaid weeks on the job, Aranda realized that “tomorrow” would never come.

***

Diego Castillo worked part-time as a dishwasher at Cafe Goodfellas in New Haven for a month and a half before he gave up on receiving a paycheck. He also worked mornings at the drycleaner across the street from the restaurant during the same time period. The moment that his boss at the drycleaner heard his story, he picked up the phone, called across the street, and demanded justice for Castillo. The owners at Goodfellas refused.

Castillo did not know that others also had wage complaints against Cafe Goodfellas. Between 2008 and 2010, the Connecticut Department of Labor had received 10 complaints against the restaurant and had forced Goodfellas to pay a total of $9,527.51 in stolen wages.

***

For Neftali Palma, a perfect job involves dough and back kitchens, desserts and a good dinner. He is a pastry chef by training and has spent 25 years pursuing his passion at restaurants in Mexico and the United States. “You make something in food and you make people happy,” Palma says. “When people come in the back and say, ‘This is the best meal of my life,’ that is my payback.”

In 2009, Palma landed a job at Downtown at the Taft, a restaurant in the heart of New Haven that briefly changed its name to Baccus Enoteca before closing this year. Palma thought he had found the best of both worlds: solid employment and a position as head chef of a six-person kitchen staff. Instead, he discovered that satisfaction would be the only thing that he would earn in abundance.

Palma and his staff filed complaints with both the federal and the state Departments of Labor. According to those complaints, the workers were receiving neither the state nor the federal minimum wage during their employment. On August 29, resolution was near after three months of negotiations with the owners of Downtown at the Taft.

“The parties appear to have reached a settlement,” said Peter Goselin, a lawyer representing the workers. “The details are being worked out, but we are very optimistic that the settlement will resolve all of the claims of the six workers.”

When Palma worked at Downtown at the Taft, he says, the restaurant’s owners gave him a sum of money to distribute to the other kitchen workers. Divided up, this sum was below minimum wage and included no overtime. This forced Palma to not only lose out on his earnings but also to reach into his own pockets to help supplement those of men working under him in the kitchen. When he asked the owners for additional money, they avoided the question. “They always say, ‘Yeah, yeah, tomorrow. Yeah, yeah, next week.’ There’s nothing you can do!”

The increased hours took a toll on his family life, too. As Palma spent between eighty and a hundred hours a week trying to meet his employer’s demands in the kitchen, he saw less and less of his three children, the youngest of whom is just six years old. “I was losing my family; I worked so many hours that I couldn’t see my kids. By the last month, the only way to see my family at all was to call them and have them come for lunch at the restaurant.” The low wages and lack of time at home led Palma, after nearly two years of working for Downtown at the Taft, to quit. “One night, my daughter asks, ‘When am I going to see you so we can talk?’ I realized that this is not a job, this is a life,” Palma says.

***

Aranda, Castillo, and Palma are three of a growing number of New Haven workers, led by organizers with Unidad Latina en Acción and the New Haven Workers Association, its multiethnic partner, who are seeking justice after alleged instances of unfair compensation. These violations of labor laws, often called wage theft, involve payment below Connecticut’s minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, a lack of time-and-a-half overtime pay, or a failure to pay wages at all. Wage theft is a national problem playing out in hundreds of city downtowns. And with the percentage of workers who are union members now at a third of its mid-20th-century height, these workers, many of whom are concentrated in the lowest rungs of the service industry and some of whom are undocumented, are among the most vulnerable members of the economy as it struggles to recover from the 2008 crash.

Workers who are illegally employed often have the hardest time coming forward about these violations, despite the fact that certain workers’ rights are universally protected by law. All unsalaried workers are entitled to the minimum wage and to overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours a week. All can sue to recover lost wages. Antonio DiBenedetto, the owner of Rocco’s Bakery on Ferry Street, pled guilty in January to holding six Ecuadorian employees as wage slaves to work from 2000 to 2008. They were eventually rescued by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a raid that, rather than deporting the immigrants, granted them protection from the alleged abuse.

The owners of Mario’s Discount Furniture, Cafe Goodfellas, and Downtown at the Taft did not respond despite repeated and acknowledged requests for comment.

Reyes Morales, who worked in the kitchen at Downtown at the Taft with Palma, says, “[Bosses] exploit workers a lot. They take advantage of people who are undocumented. Workers are afraid of losing their jobs, so they don’t say anything.” Like Aranda, he had no knowledge of the protections that the United States offers to all workers, regardless of their immigration status, under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

“There is a new slavery in the United States,” said Guadalupe Montiel, who works with both Unidad Latina en Acción and the non-profit Junta for Progressive Action. “Immigrants are being treated as slaves.”

Last year, the state of New York passed the Wage Theft Prevention Act, which mandated that employers supply all workers with salary information at the start of their employment. Activists in New Haven hope to pass similar legislation, and the individuals, both documented and undocumented, who have stepped forward thus far have won important victories. Federal- and state-level investigations by the Department of Labor have led to the delivery of tens of thousands of dollars in back-owed wages, while public protests and private negotiations have prompted back-door settlements for thousands of dollars more.

But not everyone in the city believes in seeking complete wage compliance. Some employers see low wages as the only way to survive in a competitive city. Some argue simply that this problem pervades the entire service industry, making it difficult for individual businesses to avoid. A 2009 survey of 4,000 low-wage workers across Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York found that 26 percent of those workers had been paid less than the minimum wage in the week prior, and 76 percent of them had either been underpaid or not paid for overtime hours. “If you go to any…place in New Haven, the only way they can survive is by paying less than the minimum wage. That’s the reality of the industry. I feel that’s not right,” says John Lugo, one of the leaders of Unidad Latina.

Traditionally, federal and state governments have been the arbiters of workplace behavior, regulating minimum wages, investigating fraud, and collecting taxes. But cunning employers have found other ways to skimp on their payroll, banking on the fact that workers are too intimidated or too easily replaced to protest. And when employees do speak up, as Palma did, they are often ignorant of the laws on their side. Since contacting the New Haven Workers Association, Aranda has sent two letters to Mario’s Discount Furniture demanding payment for her back wages. If her claims are true, she is owed for her unpaid work. But when asked if she knew that she had legal rights to compensation and protection in the workplace before she came into contact with the organizers, Aranda fell silent. Her reply was simple, and quiet. “No.”

***

The recent battles for wage justice in New Haven began with a victory in 2007. In January of that year, four years before Palma came forward with his allegations against Downtown at the Taft, members and allies of Unidad Latina sang a modified Christmas carol outside of an Outback Steakhouse in North Haven:

Down by the freezer
Where the kitchen staff is harassed
He said, “Hey hon, why don’t ya give me some
Or this paycheck is your last.’‘

Customers pulled their cars into the lot, saw the picket, and drove away. A police officer gave the protestors a ticket and made them move to public property. But after four months of weekly demonstrations, the group won one of its first major public labor cases: the three employees who had been fired from Outback Steakhouse after filing sexual harassment charges were paid a settlement by the national chain.

The case helped to establish Unidad Latina and the New Haven Workers Association as trusted activist organizations within the city, and they began to receive a growing number of referrals for similar cases in other local shops and restaurants. The group has handled hundreds of cases since its founding in 2002. By now, it has a streamlined strategy for responding to complaints. Major cases in the city have included Outback Steakhouse, Rocco’s Bakery, Downtown at the Taft, and Cafe Goodfellas.

The New Haven Workers Association helped Palma, Morales, and their coworkers to file their complaints. Morales was working 60 to 70 hours a week at the restaurant while being paid less than the minimum wage, with no time-and-a-half for overtime. Morales, who speaks only Spanish and admits to being undocumented, worked with his fellow complainants to provide information to help prove their allegations: the workers’ stories matched, they had their own records of their pay, and they were able to describe aspects of the restaurant’s operations in vivid detail.

Palma convinced the other men to come forward after first realizing how widespread the problem was across the city and then understanding what his rights were by speaking with the Department of Labor through the New Haven Workers Association. “We’re going to fight for [what we are owed],” he says that he told the workers. “I don’t think I’m a leader, but my guys follow me. I do it because we are human beings, and we are supposed to take care of everyone else.”

After gathering information, the New Haven Workers Association sends a certified letter to the owner of an accused business alerting them to the allegations and requesting a response by a certain date. Lugo says that about 40 percent of claims are settled after the initial letter through negotiations. The majority, though, are not. “The owners just tried to hide themselves” initially in response to the complaints about the Taft, Morales says. Palma says that he received a threatening phone call from one of his former bosses after he saw Palma’s name in print. But, he says, he also received help because of his relationship with the press: “Every time we go in the newspaper, people call me and say, ‘Ah, it’s true, I remember that happened to me.’”

When owners do not respond to the initial letters, Unidad Latina either works with a lawyer to file a case or puts together a complaint and sends it to the federal or state Department of Labor. However, the former costs money and can be nerve-wracking for complainants without legal permission to work, while the latter can take far longer than the workers are able to wait.  Sheila Hayre, an attorney at New Haven Legal Aid, estimates that the Department of Labor can take a full year to even open an investigation into a complaint, and up to a year more to resolve it. Still, organizers usually take advantage of the free forms to apply for an investigation, knowing that it will often uncover a series of discrepancies in the owner’s book keeping. They also, if workers feel comfortable, put them in touch with Department of Labor representatives to help confirm their feelings of being treated wrongly. “We went to the Labor Department, and they explained it to me,” says Palma. “People in those kinds of positions don’t really realize how much they’re supposed to make. You should know you should make more than that.”

But appealing to government channels is merely the first, and quietest, step in Unidad Latina’s support of the workers. They also organize picket lines, host direct actions, and call press conferences to publicize their accusations. On December 17, 2010, www.boycottbaccusenoteca.blogspot.com went live with an entry about a picket line and a phone number to call with complaints.  “This restaurant owes nearly $100,000 in unpaid wages to 7 former workers,” read the headline. “Wage theft is a crime.”

Unidad Latina learned from trial and error to hold pickets on Fridays in order to have the greatest effect on a restaurant’s profits and to hold press conferences on Wednesday afternoons in order to draw the largest number of press outlets. The number of protestors varies between ten and forty; workers often bring their friends for support.

The approach has been effective. Goodfellas, though initially unwilling to negotiate despite orders from the Department of Labor, finally paid its workers the full $23,000 that they had been owed after a large press conference was called and organizers warned of a redoubling of picketing efforts. However, picketers run the risk of alienating the local population—“Glares are the nicest thing they do,” says Chris Garaffa, a co-founder of the New Haven Workers Association and a regular participant in the picket lines—or having run-ins with the police, which can be extremely dangerous for any undocumented workers participating in public action. It can also take a long time for protests to take effect, and if a restaurant closes, as Downtown at the Taft did, it can be difficult for organizers to find a place to make a stand. But even with the dangers involved, Lugo is convinced that direct action is a necessary addition to Unidad Latina’s more official complaints. “Many of the big victories in this country, they got won on the streets,” he says.

***

For Lugo and Garaffa, undocumented workers are the most difficult to convince to come to public protests. Sometimes, in those cases, Garaffa offers complainants complete anonymity and lets them miss their own picket lines. “If you work, you deserve to get paid,” he says. “When we talk about a case with the press, we don’t specify whether it involves an immigrant or not.”

Certainly, the workers impacted by wage theft are not solely illegal immigrants. Many of them are Latino or Latina and here legally; many others are of other backgrounds and are caught up in the same low wage job market as the immigrants are. Erin Talbot, who is white, worked briefly as a waitress at the vegetarian restaurant Thali Too. On her first day on the job during the summer after the restaurant opened, she alleges that she heard her boss threatening to have workers’ wages withheld during future shifts for not setting the table correctly. Rattan Kaul, the manager of Thali Too for the past year, says that he heard no reports of payment disputes from Talbot or other employees, and that the restaurant’s payments are done through a computer system that automatically issues wages by the hour. According to Talbot, the incident prompted her to quit because she had another job offer, but many others are not so fortunate.

“Especially in this economy, if there are enough people looking for jobs… most people will endure far less than ideal working conditions,” she said in a phone interview. Indeed, part of the purpose of the founding of the New Haven Workers Association out of Unidad Latina en Acción was to better represent workers who were not members of the populations with which Unidad Latina usually works. However, that Talbot was confident enough in her rights as a worker to stand up to the manager in the first place sets her apart from most of the undocumented workers who work in the back of the house at restaurants and service shops.

The stereotyping of Latinos across the country makes the public less sympathetic to uneven power dynamics in the service industry. John Ziebell, a New Haven resident, showed up to a May Day workers’ rally with his seven-year-old son Ben to hold a sign reading, “American Jobs for Americans First.” He pointed to the three puppets made by Unidad Latina and the New Haven Workers Association and said, “None of those puppets are white. It’s not fair, it’s not right…it’s taking my job and the job of other Americans.” Ziedell said his own family immigrated to the United States from Germany three generations ago, and he has worked hard to earn his living since then.

But despite the disagreements over undocumented immigrants in all other aspects of American life, laws regarding the workplace and specifically the Fair Labor Standards Act stipulate that, once hired, undocumented immigrants have rights, too. “In the United States, at least in the ideal version of it, we believe there has to be a certain basic floor of standards,” says Hayre of New Haven Legal Aid. Moreover, when complaints are filed, the legal burden of proof falls on the employer, so even undocumented immigrants who have been intimidated out of saving records of their pay are able to file a claim.

Often, workers, Aranda and Reyes included, are surprised to find out how much protection they have without formal legal status in the United States. But Hayre says that it is not just a matter of workers understanding their rights—even after she holds workshops to explain their rights to them, she receives very few complaints from men and women who are still employed. The job market is too difficult, and undocumented immigrants remain nervous about their status. It is often only once they quit or are fired that workers will show up in Hayre’s office. “Really what has to change is this climate of fear that surrounds undocumented immigrants in this country,” she says.

It is a justifiable fear. Even with the protections, until a national immigration solution is reached, there will always be some level of risk for immigrants who come forward. While there are cases that establish a precedent for the irrelevance of immigration status in claims for unpaid minimum wages or overtime, other cases involving backpay for unlawful termination may require disclosure of a worker’s legal status in the country. Hayre says that complications arise when a court tries to sentence a business owner. If the complainant argues that he or she was illegally fired, normally the court will order the owner to re-hire that person. However, in a case where the plaintiff is not a documented resident or does not have papers allowing him or her to work in the United States, it is equally impossible to order a business owner to break the law again by hiring such a worker. Hayre says that until the threat of deportation fades away, undocumented immigrants will never be able to fully feel comfortable coming forward with complaints about workplace violations. “Who am I to say risk everything [to speak up]? Honestly, I’d probably make the same decision,” she says of the workers who decide to remain silent.

For Aranda, who is undocumented yet came forward anyway, the specter of deportation paled next to her desire for justice. She acknowledges that owners are aware of how much they can exploit immigrants, but says that there should be a level of respect given to all workers, regardless of their status. “I would say to the people who are afraid [of speaking out] that we are human, too. In spite of this little paper…we are human, too.”

***

“¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido! The people, united, will never be defeated! El pueblo unido…” One hundred demonstrators shout together, alternating languages, in front of New Haven’s City Hall. There are not as many reporters present as the organizers had hoped for, but their mission—to stop traffic in the center of the city in honor of International Workers’ Day on May 1—grows more successful with each car that has to detour around the crowds. The demonstrators march from City Hall to the hospital and back again. They ask for paid sick days, better immigration laws, education reform, and the end to the Iraq War all in the same breath, which makes one thing extremely clear: despite their vocal support for unity, these activists do not present an entirely united front. They are workers, yes, and they want change; but these are alliances born out of convenience and necessity, not common goals.

These alliances become necessary in a city the size of New Haven. Unlike New York City, New Haven has few worker centers able to pay specific employees to investigate allegations and lobby the government when wage theft cases like Aranda’s arise. This leaves New Haven with a landscape of activism that is far from full-time. Unidad Latina has no budget of any kind; it relies on donations to pay for the occasional rented space, and at the time of these interviews, was two months behind on those sporadic rent payments already. Besides the few nonprofit organizations and public interest lawyers who do exist, the search for justice is an after-hours pursuit. This means that the limited activists in the city unite at every opportunity.

Alejandro Torres, a junior at Yale and a member of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlian, or MEChA, at Yale, marched May 1 with signs for the Workers Association and tried to connect it with the experiences of the students around him. “There are plenty of students, especially within MEChA, who have immigrant families, some of whom have been exploited,” he says. Alan Williams, 17, a student at Wilbur Cross High School who spoke at the rally in support of education reform, also agreed to lend his voice to the workers in a similar commingling of causes. “I feel we’re all struggling,” he says. “Workers, many of them are parents, so many of our struggles fall back on them.” “It’s a chain reaction,” agreed Jazlyn Ocasio, a 14-year-old who is also a student at Wilbur Cross.

Members of Unidad Latina and the New Haven Workers Association also joined in on chants in favor of better education and national peace as they made their way through the march, doing their part to contribute to other causes. Meanwhile, the giant puppets that Aranda had spent hours of time creating were so large that they needed three people each to hold up their limbs. Their faces—a chef, an agricultural worker, and a construction worker—bobbed and weaved above the crowd throughout the afternoon.

The alliances between New Haven’s limited number of activists also means that the same people show up at very different events. Luis Luna, who hoisted a New Haven Workers Association sign above his head with one arm and pumped his fist with the other, spoke in favor of workers as he marched across the city. “I think we have to make a presence [in honor of May Day],” he said. “Most employers are paying a couple of dollars less [than they should] to the workers… they have to realize that workers can’t live on minimum wage.” The last time that he had been quoted by a reporter, Luna was at a protest against police brutality and had filed his own complaint against the department for interfering with his right to videotape the actions of officers.

Chris Garaffa is among New Haven’s regular revolutionaries. He is also one of its many activists with a day job. Garaffa, who showed up in square glasses and a gray striped collared shirt with a phone in his front pocket, earns his paycheck as a software developer. During evenings and weekends, though, he is the leader of the local Party for Socialism and Liberation and was one of the original founders of the New Haven Workers Association. “I write software to pay my bills, but my purpose is activism and making the world better,” he says.

Garaffa was first drawn into the activism community in 2003 when he decided to join a protest against the Iraq War. Garaffa is often the one to give a pep talk to workers within the organization in an attempt to get them to attend a protest on behalf of another set of complainants. “Today we fought for you,” he tells them at the end of every case. “Tomorrow, we hope you’ll join us to fight for someone else.”

***

Institutions engaging in wage theft and illegal employment practices are hard to spot from the outside. Cafe Goodfellas restaurant, for example, received a laudatory write-up for its food and service in The New York Times within a month of the Department of Labor filing claims against its owner on behalf of ten workers who had not been paid properly. The renowned Rocco’s Bakery still has lines out the door when it opens in the morning, despite the owner pleading guilty to criminal charges for his employment practices in January. Hayre, the attorney at New Haven Legal Aid, said, “It’s maddening, because it’s right under your nose.”

But if Megan Fountain, a co-organizer of Unidad Latina, has any influence on the situation, that invisibility will soon change. She, along with other organizers from Unidad Latina and the New Haven Workers Association, held a press conference at the start of the summer to announce that the organization will spend the upcoming months coming up with a system to publicly announce and celebrate restaurants who do manage to achieve fair labor standards. She wants to prove that the commonly-held view that service industry businesses cannot afford to pay workers minimum wage and remain competitive is a myth. Ultimately, the organizers hope to convince lawmakers to pass a bill akin to New York’s 2010 Wage Theft Prevention Act. “We are not done transforming the restaurant industry in New Haven. This is just the beginning,” said Fountain.

Palma, who found a new job during his time protesting Downtown at the Taft, now spends far more hours with his family than he used to. He receives fair wages and is able to continue pursuing his passion for pastry-making. Yet despite his newfound gains, he is determined not to let anyone forget about what happened to him and his coworkers, and what happens to other workers in other places. “We started to find out that it doesn’t just happen to us, it happens to people around New Haven, around the country. It happens everywhere,” he says.

“We are good people. We do the right thing. We have to fight for all of these people.”

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2 Responses to “Waging War”

  1. Yale Grad says:

    I wish there were a list of businesses to avoid. I would hate to be inadvertently supporting slavery in my community.

  2. betty says:

    I think this is a great cause to take up and proof positive that immigration reform is needed in this country. Unfortunately Neftali Palma is a very poor spokesperson for this cause and will eventually damage the message. He is not a poor illegal worker as declared here, he has legal standing in the US. While all of this “injustice” was happening to him he was collecting unemlployment benefits from the Connecticut Department of Labor while collecting cash wages. He still continues to collect benefits and according to your article is happily employed elsewhere. That is fraud. I think it shows very poor judgement on his part to have his face splashed all over the newspapers while de-frauding state government of money and above all I think it is a true betrayal to all the people out there that are being mistreated in the work place and have looked to him to lead their charge!


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