Labor Department says California taqueria used ‘priest’ to intimidate workers

Labor Department says California taqueria used 'priest' to intimidate workers

In November 2021 the owner of a Northern California taqueria was the target of a federal wage theft investigation after he brought in a strange guest to talk to his employees.

Eduardo Hernandez told workers at Taqueria Garibaldi in Sacramento that the man, who claimed to be a priest, was there to hear confessions and “help with mental health,” according to an account that an employee gave to federal regulators. Had given.

But the employee, Maria Parra, found her conversation with the man to be more like an interrogation than a confession. Ms Parra said he told her she would ask him questions “to take the blame out of me”. But when the questioning began, the man had “mostly work-related questions,” she said.

“The priest asked if I had stolen anything at work, if I was late for my work, if I had done anything to harm my employer and if I had any bad intentions towards my work,” Ms. Parra said in a statement. said in the affidavit.

Labor Department investigator Raquel Alfaro testified that “several employees” told her that they attended confession with the man and “they found it strange because the priest was asking questions about their loyalty to the employer and the business. “

Labor Department officials said this week that they believe their intent was to intimidate workers and possibly extract information about their conversations with investigators.

Last month, a federal judge ordered Mr. Hernandez and the other owner of Taqueria Garibaldi, which has three locations in the Sacramento area, to pay $140,000 in back wages and damages to 35 employees.

The Labor Department said in a statement announcing the enforcement action Monday that the restaurant failed to pay its hourly workers for overtime and illegally paid tip money to managers.

Mr. Hernandez and his lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.

As for the man who took confession from Taqueria Garibaldi’s workers, it was unclear whether or not he was an actual priest. Federal investigators were unable to identify him, noting that restaurant staff knew only that he was a friend of Mr. Hernandez.

Brian Visitacion, a spokesman for the Diocese of Sacramento, said he did not know who the man was. “The individual in question is not a priest in the Diocese of Sacramento,” he said in an email.

In sworn declarations, the workers described a hostile work environment at Taqueria Garibaldi, saying they were forced to work extra hours without pay, that they were often denied breaks and fired without notice. There was a warning.

An employee whose name was redacted in court documents told investigators, “I saw my co-workers hiding in the walk-in refrigerator and taking breaks to eat,” adding that the manager “didn’t let us sit and eat.” will” and “put pressure on you to get up and work.”

The worker said that while working 50 to 60 hours per week, he was paid only for 40 hours.

The Labor Department found that Mr. Hernandez; Héctor Manuel Martínez Galindo, who owned the restaurant with him; and Alejandro Rodriguez, a manager, instructed staff members to lie to investigators by saying they did not work overtime. The defendants took other measures to hinder the investigation, the department said, including destroying payroll records and threatening some workers with deportation if they spoke to federal regulators.

Court documents show workers are due to receive as much as $14,826 in back pay and damages from 2018 to 2021 in court-ordered unpaid wages.

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