The clanging of metal spoons on pots and pans and cries for “justicia!” resounded on College Street Friday, as workers and local advocacy groups protested wage theft and discrimination in New Haven businesses.
Brandishing colored signs, around 30 workers, workers’ rights group members and city residents stood in the cold outside the restaurant Downtown at the Taft to denounce alleged exploitation of workers by the Taft and Café Goodfellas, an Italian restaurant on State Street.
“Specialty of Goodfellas Café: exploitation salad, mistreat pasta,” one worker’s homemade sign read.
Patricia Juárez, community organizer for the Latino advocacy group Junta for Progressive Action, said these employers owe workers over $93,000 in overtime and unpaid wages for their work in the past year. After six workers from Taft and four from Goodfellas brought complaints to her organization, Juarez organized the outdoor “press conference” to bring media attention to their cause, she said.
Juarez said she received complaints from workers about Café Goodfellas’ practices over the summer. When she received a complaint about Downtown at the Taft a few weeks ago, her organization, Junta, decided to take action against both places. The complaints “are both from Italian restaurants and the same circumstances almost,” she said. Junta calculated that Taft owed its workers around $70,00 dollars in overtime and Goodfellas owed around $23,000.
Junta and the New Haven Workers Association, another advocacy group, sent letters to the restaurants early last week, citing Excel spreadsheet calculations of how much the companies owed. But the Taft’s lawyer John Keefe said he did not receive a copy of the spreadsheet until just a few hours before the protest. As of this Monday, the Taft is consulting with a new lawyer, David Quatrella, who could not be reached for comment.
Managers at Café Goodfellas were also unable to be reached for comment.
According to Marco Castillo, a member of the New Haven Workers Association and Unidad Latina en Acción also at the protest, the workers hope to negotiate with the restaurants rather than filing a formal complaint with the Labor Department.
Neftali Palma, a former executive chef at the Taft present at the protest, said appealing to the Labor Department is difficult because the Taft did not keep records of its payments to employees. He said he and his kitchen staff were paid in cash so the manager could avoid taxes.
“We don’t have proof of working over there, because we never have a paycheck, we never have papers that say our names and how much we make every week,” Palma said. Without records, the Labor Department cannot verify their employment.
Mayor John DeStefano said he was not aware of any labor complaints.
“The city doesn’t enforce wage laws–that’s the state’s responsibility,” he added.
Palma said he would often work 80 to 90 hours a week and receive a salary of $900. The management would give him $2700 a week to cover the salaries of him and his four kitchen staff, and in order to pay the staff fairly he would cut money from his own wages, he said.
The daily grind of long hours and low pay threatened to tear his life apart, Palma said. “I worked so many hours that I almost lost my family,” he said. “I never see my kids, and my wife, she thinks I have some other woman here.”
By law, any work over 40 hours per week is considered overtime and requires at least 1.5 times the regular rate of pay. The minimum wage in Connecticut is $8.25 per hour.
Palma, who is from Mexico, also described feeling degraded because of his ethnicity. One manager speculated to him that the reason for his restaurant’s slow business was that “people look into the kitchen and they see all these short guys, they see all these Spanish people,” Palma said. He felt compelled to dye his hair blond to make a better impression. “After that [the manager] said, ‘Oh, you look different, you look like a white boy!’” Palma recounted.
When workers complain about their treatment or low pay, employers often retaliate by threatening to fire them or report them to immigration authorities, said Marlon Barrera, a member of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York also at the protest. The Restaurant Opportunities Center works to improve working conditions in the restaurant industry.
“I want to tell the government the following: make workers’ rights respected, regardless of their immigration status,” Barrera told the crowd, cheered on by the clatter of pots and pans.
The empty pots that workers banged represented “the pots of their families, that cannot be filled because they have not been paid the wages that they are owed,” Stephanie Bifolco, a member of the New Haven Workers Association, said. Juarez distributed the pots as well as spoons and other utensils to hit them with before the conference started.
“This time of year, everyone’s talking about the holiday season and the holiday spirit and the spirit of giving,” Peter Goselin, a lawyer who represents workers in wage theft cases, said. “We’re not asking for this because we’re asking for once a year charity. We’re asking for it because we’re asking for every day justice.”
Goselin compared employers in New Haven to the character Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, who was stingy towards his workers. In the story, Ebenezer Scrooge learned his lesson when the three ghosts convinced him to change his ways, Goselin said.
“Well, we’re not going to wait for ghosts to do that job,” he added.
Goselin said that while Connecticut is one of the richest states in the country, it still has workers who are not paid for overtime and who do not receive the minimum wage.
Four students interviewed who have been to the Taft said that if the allegations are true, they would be less likely to frequent the establishment. “The bar options and eating options in New Haven are such that you can exercise a degree of moral freedom” in deciding where to go, Justin Lowenthal ’11 said.
Around the country, 26 percent of workers in low-wage industries are paid below the minimum wage, and 76 percent of those who work overtime are not adequately compensated, said Sarah Leberstein, an attorney for the National Employment Law Project. The Project is a nonprofit advocacy group devoted to enforcing worker’s rights, aiding the unemployed, and promoting job creation.