In what can only be characterized as a shameless display of greed and callousness, the New York State Labor Commissioner disclosed that twenty-five Brooklyn restaurants and cafes are guilty of grossly underpaying staff and owe almost $1Million in unpaid wages to more than 200 workers. some workers were even being paid as little as $2.75 an hour, far below the state minimum wage of $7.25. Most of the involved workers were immigrants. Twenty-three of the restaurants were charged with minimum wage and overtime wage violations.
In the spring, twenty-three restaurants and coffee shops along Fifth and Seventh Avenues got surprise visits from sixteen Department of Labor investigators sent to interview employees and check payroll documents to ensure workers were being paid in compliance with state law. Investigators conducted random sweeps of 23 Park Slope restaurants in April. The restaurants included some well-established eateries including Aunt Suzie’s, Baluchi’s, Sweet Melissa Patisserie, Sotto Voce, Joe’s Pizza, Uncle Moe’s, and Olive Vine Cafe. Massive wage discrepancies at two of the restaurants; Coco Roco and Olive Vine Café, prompted investigators to visit nearby sister restaurants where they discovered additional violations. At the Olive Vine Café on Fifth Ave., workers were underpaid more than $200,000, according to the state Department of Labor; the owner claims he doesn’t have the funds to repay workers and may go out of business.
According to the Labor Department, in total, 207 workers were underpaid more than $910,000. Some of the worst violations were for delivery employees working 60 to seventy hours per week and paid a salary of $210.00 to 275.00 per week. “In the vibrant Park Slope neighborhood, filled with writers, activists, and growing families, we found that many of the bustling restaurants were staffed by workers who were paid grossly illegal wages,” said State Labor Commissioner M. Patricia Smith. “This investigation shows that wage theft happens not only in dimly-lit factories or grim depressed neighborhoods — it happens everywhere. Even our very nicest neighborhoods sometimes have sweatshops on their main streets. Today, during the National Day of Action to Stop Wage Theft, we continue to work for justice for these and other underpaid workers.” Thus far, twelve cases have been resolved and thirteen are in negotiation. “My message to employers is this: This is the future,” said Commissioner Smith. “We will start doing these proactive sweeps across the city.”
The exploitation of restaurant workers is by no means confined to Brooklyn. There are roughly 200 million international migrants working globally, or three percent of the world’s population; the leisure and hospitality industry accounts for eleven percent of those workers. Some 4,000 workers are currently striking in Paris, among them are Africans, Sri Lankans and Asians; many work as chefs, assistant cooks, waiters, plongeurs, and dishwashers. While most of us face economic hardships, the global economy extracts a much harsher toll on the world’s poor. We applaud the State Labor Department for their efforts; the department encourages employers and workers to contact the them about wage and hour issues. Investigators will answer any questions regarding compliance with New York’s labor laws. Information is also available on the department’s web site www.labor.ny.gov; or by phone at 1-888-52-LABOR.