NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—A judgement owed to New Brunswick resident Mirna Gonzales Garcia has finally been paid by her former employer, Las Cazuelas.
This resolution comes as a conclusion to a more than two year long battle with the restaurant over allegedly unpaid wages and unfairly compensated overtime that amounted to over $7,000.
“I lost my job and friendships in this fight,” Garcia told New Brunswick Today.
The conflict between Garcia and Las Cazuelas stems back to 2012, before New Brunswick became the first city in New Jersey to pass a law making uncured labor violations a dealbreaker for a city business license.
Garcia explained that for almost eight months, she worked for the restaurant and was paid a salary of $350 a week, no matter how many hours she logged. She quickly found herself working up to seven days a week for sometimes nine or ten hours a day.
When the restaurant refused to pay her thousands she was owed in overtime she was due, she took her employer to court.
Garcia won a judgement against Las Cazuelas on July 14 that required them to pay the balance of the unpaid wages and a settlement to the New Jersey Department of Labor based on the findings of a state investigation of her claims.
Despite this victory in court, Garcia still had not seen a penny of the wages she was owed until recently. She found support in the form of social justice organizations Unity Square and New Labor, which started to pressure the restaurant into resolving her case.
By the end of July, Las Cazuelas had been denied an operating license renewal that would effectively close the restaurant on December 1 if the wage theft case had not been closed out.
“It affected me tremendously, it was constant disappointment,” Garcia says. “During this case, I was hospitalized because of the stress on my diabetes.”
Members of Unity Square community center and New Labor organized several public pressure actions in which they picketed the restaurant and encouraged boycotts of the business.
On November 1, Garcia was notified that she would be able to collect the first installment of the wages owed.
“Thanks to the support of New Labor and Unity Square, I feel good because everyone was always there supporting me.”
Renalda Cruz, an organizer with New Labor, spoke to New Brunswick Today about the feeling of accomplishment that surrounds this news.
“This is something that we achieved together,” Cruz said.
“All of New Labor and Unity Square work together to support Mirna in this victory. I’m happy that she’s getting better and getting what she deserved.”
Jason Rowe, director of the Unity Square community center is excited to see the newly enacted ordinance enforced so quickly.
“This is a strong example of how the wage theft ordinance is supposed to work,” said Rowe. “It places real consequences on businesses that do not meet their responsibilities, and thus provides a strong motivation for them to more quickly resolve wrongs after they have been caught.”
“Under the law, you cannot refuse to pay an employee and then take years to pay them back. It’s not an interest-free loan.”
Garcia urges residents of New Brunswick to use resources available if someone they know might be a victim of wage theft. She believes the best thing to do is to align with an organization, like New Labor or Unity Square.
“Be united and work together.” says Garcia.
“You have to speak up. If you remain silent, we are not going to change anything.”
Cruz is proud of Garcia’s victory because she believes it’s a positive example for the community. “It’s good that other people see this success. People must know that they can win and that there are organizations that can help.”
This resolution comes as City Clerk Dan Torrisi recently denied another restaurant, La Hacienda, an operating license renewal on the grounds of an unsolved wage theft violation.
The French Street restaurant has been ordered to pay Irene Lopez $5,931 of unpaid wages that span back to 2011.
Lopez has not yet collected on that judgement, but with the power of the ordinance and the assistance of Unity Square and New Labor, she is hoping to resolve the longstanding debt with the restaurant.
“We are asking them to pay the judgement before December 1, which is when they will have to go out of business if they don’t take care of this,” says Rowe.
“We want to make sure it’s clear to them that we will do another public pressure event, like the ones we have done at Las Cazuelas and Maoz Vegetarian, if they do not pay what they owe.”
Moaz Vegetarian on George Street quietly closed its doors in July after it was picketed by Unity Square and New Labor for an unpaid wage violation.
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.