Group claims wage theft at ABQ restaurants

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Marian Mendoza Cera, a community organizer with El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, addresses a group of about 30 people outside City Hall on Monday to protest alleged rampant “wage theft” at local restaurants. (Rick Nathanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Members of a grassroots immigrant and worker rights organization, and a group of restaurant workers staged a protest outside Albuquerque City Hall Monday, claiming that wage theft is rampant at eateries and city leaders should more vigorously enforce minimum wage laws.

Marian Mendoza Cera, a community organizer with El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, said employers steal wages in a variety of ways, including not paying overtime, reclassifying workers as salaried instead of hourly wage earners to avoid paying overtime, not paying the minimum wage, having employees work off the clock, stealing tips or simply refusing to provide a paycheck.

This harms state and local economies, and impacts the workers’ ability to provide for their families, pushing many of them deeper into poverty, Mendoza Cera said.

“When employers don’t pay their workers their wages, those employers are also not paying payroll taxes, which harms the state’s revenues and places law-abiding employers at a competitive disadvantage,” as well as impedes consumer spending that is necessary for a community’s economic growth, she said.

She added that all the restaurant employees with grievances filed claims with the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions. They also unsuccessfully attempted to settle the matter with the restaurant employees to avoid escalation.

El Centro and the restaurant workers pointed to three restaurants in particular: Hacienda del Rio in Old Town and M’tucci’s, both of which, they said, neglected to pay workers overtime and in some cases changed worker classifications to avoid paying overtime. They also alleged Scalo Northern Italian Grill, which is now closed, left employees without final paychecks for work they had performed.

While the owners of Scalo and Hacienda del Rio did not return messages, the owner of M’tucci’s said he was familiar with the charge and blamed it on “one disgruntled employee.”

Four former workers at Hacienda del Rio, including Guillermo Camacho, who addressed those assembled, filed suit against the restaurant owners alleging they were not paid for all of their hours worked. District Judge Nancy Franchini in 2017 ruled that the restaurant owners were liable for the unpaid wages of about $40,000. The workers have not yet seen the money, Mendoza Cera said.

She added that since that ruling, additional wage claims have been filed against Hacienda del Rio with the Department of Workforce Solutions and a class action lawsuit against the restaurant is pending.

Former M’tucci worker Pablo Lazalde, said from 2016 through 2017, he regularly worked 40-80 hours a week without being paid overtime. He was eventually made a sous chef at the restaurant’s Rio Rancho location, where he was put in charge of employee schedules.

“That’s when I saw that other employees were also not being paid overtime.” That’s also when he decided to speak up and complain to management, and eventually left the restaurant, he said.

M’tucci owner Jeff Spiegel said Lazalde’s allegations are “nonsense brought about by one person, a disgruntled employee who essentially tried to cause a rebellion in our kitchen.”

The rebellion, he said, “did not work, and he tried to get people to sabotage our business; he did the same thing to his next employer and that didn’t work either, and they got rid of him quickly.”

Lazalde, he said, left M’tucci’s on his own and was not fired.

In 30 years of owning restaurants, Spiegel said, “We’ve never had an incident like that.”

He further noted that in the years following the 2013 opening of the first M’tucci’s restaurant in Albuquerque, 80 percent of the original employees were still working there.

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