BUSINESS

Wage Theft: Illinois Restaurateur Owes Workers $1 Million In Back Pay, Damages

WASHINGTON -- Workers got a pretty raw deal at Dolores Onate's two Mexican restaurants in Decatur, Ill. Not only were the waiters and kitchen workers stiffed on overtime and minimum-wage requirements, they were actually forced to pay their wages back directly to Onate, according to a federal court case decided this month.

Due to violations of fair labor laws, Dolores Onate and her restaurants' manager, brother Ricardo Onate, have been ordered to pay a whopping $1.15 million in back pay and damages to 64 workers -- an unusually high penalty for a small-business restaurateur.

"It really took a lot of gall for an employer to request that money be returned," labor department spokesman Scott Allen told the Huffington Post. "It's absolutely unacceptable. That’s why the penalty was as severe as it was."

From 2006 to 2009, the wait staff at El Matador and El Caporal restaurants had been allowed to keep their cash tips, but they were required to endorse their paychecks back to the restaurant, according to the decision. Kitchen staff, busboys, and dishwashers at the restaurants were paid less than the minimum wage, did not receive the overtime pay due them, and were also ordered to return a portion of their paychecks to the ownership.

Employees were also told not to punch in until a certain time, even though they may have started work much earlier. Many of the workers were Hispanic immigrants.

A lawyer for the Onates did not return a call seeking comment.

Ted Smukler of Interfaith Worker Justice, a Chicago-based non-profit that advocates for low-wage workers, said the Decatur case is indicative of widespread wage violations in American restaurants.

"It's incredibly prevalent throughout the entire restaurant industry," Smukler said. "A lot of times it's not just that workers don’t understand their rights, but that they don’t feel it's safe to assert them, depending on their immigration status or their need for the job in this economy."

Smukler added that many violations go unreported, and that many victims simply move on to other restaurant jobs. His group recently surveyed workers from 200 restaurants in Chicago and found that almost none of them were in full compliance with wage laws.

According to a recent report from Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, nearly half of restaurant workers say they work overtime for which they're not paid, and roughly 90 percent said they don't receive paid sick days and don't receive health insurance through their employer.

Many workers also don't receive the minimum wage. Employers are supposed to pay tipped employees a base wage -- either the $2.13 federal rate or the state rate, whichever is higher -- that, combined with the employees' tips, should meet the normal minimum wage. If not, the employer is supposed to make up the difference.

The labor department investigation found that many of the workers at El Matador and El Caporal received wages that fell well short of the state's minimum. "The defendants in this case willfully and repeatedly violated federal labor standards," labor secretary Hilda Solis said in a statement. "These vulnerable workers will receive their rightful pay."

Allen said that after its investigation the labor department had tried to work with the Onates to get the workers paid properly. Only when the Onates declined to cooperate did the labor department file suit against them.

"It's sad, actually," Allen said. "No one should have to go through all this to receive their just pay."