NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The City Clerk's Office has notified the management of a new restaurant on Somerset Street that their license to do business is in jeopardy due to a wage theft judgment against them.
Wage theft is the illegal practice of not compensating workers for time worked or rightfully owed benefits.
On July 24, members of Unity Square and New Labor picketed the Las Cazuelas Mexican Restaurant, located in the former BudaBar location, in protest of unpaid wages to one of the restaurant’s employees.
Over 20 people gathered that evening in support of New Brunswick resident, Mirna Gonzalez Garcia, who is allegedly owed over $2,000 in unpaid wages from 2013.
And earlier this week, City Clerk Dan Torrissi sent a letter to the business owners, Gladis Ramirez and Andres Solano of North Brunswick, notifying them that their license will not be renewed unless the violation is resolved.
"We will not renew your license until the wage theft finding has been cured. You are not permitted to operate your restaurant beginning December 1, 2014," reads the letter, a copy of which has been obtained by New Brunswick Today.
Earlier this year, Garcia received a $700 check from the restaurant to go towards the balance of the unpaid wages, but the check bounced. Las Cazuelas called the police on Garcia when she went to the restaurant to inform them of the bad check.
Garcia's struggle inspired Unity Square and New Labor to organize the July 24 protest.
Protesters held signs with messages like “Stop Wage Theft Now” and “No Más Robo de Salario A Los Trabajadores” (No More Worker Wage Theft) and chanted in unison outside the restaurant.
Lou Kimmel, executive director of New Labor, a community union organization for low wage workers that educates, organizes, and fights for better conditions in the workplace, spoke with New Brunswick Today about the wage theft issue.
“We do these actions to make the issue public. There are billions of dollars nationally that are stolen from workers across all sectors,” Kimmel said.
Aiming to bring attention to the growing problem of wage theft in New Brunswick, protesters spoke with residents on the sidewalk and with customers as they entered the restaurant.
Jason Rowe of Unity Square told New Brunswick Today that, despite a strong law passed by the City Council last December, wage theft remains a major problem in the Hub City.
“We did a survey of the Unity Square target area and found that 1 in 6 households in New Brunswick had experienced wage theft in the past 2 years.” Rowe says. “The vast majority of them were unable to collect their unpaid wages.”
Thursday’s protest of Las Cazuelas follows the July 7 court judgement filed by Garcia against the restaurant for wage theft. Because of the judgment, the city's new wage theft law says that the business' license cannot be renewed. Restaurant licenses are up for renewal once per year.
The first of its kind in New Jersey, the wage theft ordinance makes it easier for victims to file claims against businesses and also increases penalties, which can include the loss of a restaurant or commercial license. Violations can include not paying the minimum wage, not paying workers overtime or for all hours worked, or denying employees rightfully owed benefits.
“A lot of restaurant workers are paid by the week.” says Kimmel, describing just one instance of how wage theft can occur.
“They might be told they’ll be paid $400 a week which sounds great, but they wind up working 80 hours a week. It comes out to be less than minimum wage and they aren’t paid for overtime."
Garcia was found to be in favor of the judgement, but the restaurant has still not paid her.
New Labor and Unity Square have presented their formal petition to the New Brunswick city clerk to deny the renewal of Las Cazuelas’ restaurant license which is due to expire in November.
On July 28th, New Brunswick Today confirmed with City Clerk Dan Torrisi that Las Cazuelas's restuarant license will not be renewed.
While immigrant workers are easy targets for unethical businesses to exploit, it's not just one group or industry that's affected by wage theft.
“Anyone is at risk for wage theft because it happens across all sectors and demographics.” Kimmel notes.
"This is not just a Latino issue. This is a community issue and wage theft destroys the community."
This protest takes place during New Brunswick’s annual Restaurant Week where restaurants offer discounted pricing to attract new customers.
“New Brunswick prides itself on its restaurants and the other attractions it offers. The practice of wage theft hurts businesses that follow the law because it creates unfair competition. This is damaging to the New Brunswick economy.” says Rowe.
“It takes the money out of the hands of hard working people, like families that are just trying to provide necessities to their children.”
The event at Las Cazuelas was followed by a free “Know Your Labor Rights” workshop at the newly opened Unity Square community center on Remsen Avenue.
Participants learned about local and state wage and hour laws as well as how to identify and report wage theft. One-on-one counseling was available for victims of wage theft by New Brunswick business.
“We are giving New Brunswick businesses notice that if they are engaging in wage theft, they will be discovered. If they don’t pay, we will work to make sure their operating licenses are not renewed at the end of this year.” says Rowe.
This protest also comes just a week after the closing of Maoz Vegetarian, a downtown restaurant that was the target of two public pressure actions by New Labor and Unity Square. Although the unpaid worker was reimbursed for $850 of unpaid wages, the restaurant closed their doors without warning.
The Maoz Vegetarian New Brunswick Facebook page originally said that the store had closed because they “lost their lease.” The store's Facebook and Twitter pages have since been deleted.
Rowe told New Brunswick Today that Maoz Vegetarian allegedly never even held a commercial or restaurant operating license with the city.
If you or anyone you know suspects that they have been a victim of wage theft by a New Brunswick business, New Labor and Unity Square offer free counseling and consultations. For more information, contact Unity Square at (732) 545-0329 or visit their Facebook page.