November 11, 2013

Restaurant pays workers part of what they were owed

Twenty workers of a shuttered restaurant had to file a federal lawsuit to recover unpaid wages.

After a yearlong battle for their back pay, some 20 former employees of a shuttered Cuban restaurant in Miami Beach have finally received their checks for part of what was owed to them.

In late October, the owners of the iconic David’s Cafe II, which closed in July 2012, agreed to pay 75 percent of back pay owed to the employees who filed a lawsuit against them.

The restaurant owners, Alfredo González, María González, Adrián González and Laura Collard-González, paid a total of $36,274. The Gonzálezes still operate the original restaurant, David’s Café, on Collins Avenue.

The family, which has refused to speak to El Nuevo Herald for more than a year, did not respond to a message on Friday.

The former employees met at Flamingo Park in Miami Beach to receive the checks distributed by one of the group’s leaders, Carlos Pérez. Several of them said that they have not found a job during the year and that the money they received will help pay accumulated debts. Each received between $1,000 and $3,000.

Yet some said they still were not sure whether to claim victory until their banks confirmed that the checks have funds. On several occasions last year workers received checks that bounced from the company.

“It’s good that they have finally paid us, but I’ll be sure when I see the money in my hands,” said Hilda Manzanares, a Honduran woman who worked at David’s Café II for three years and collected $2,100 in back pay. “After all the lying before, who knows?”

The group has protested since September 2012 and sought the help of several authorities, from a county program against wage theft and the Miami Beach police to the federal Department of Labor and a civil attorney.

Miami-Dade County is one of the few Florida counties that have an ordinance against wage theft, but that didn’t help the David’s Café II group. County officials communicated with the Gonzálezes in late 2012 to try to reach a payment agreement, but the Gonzálezes said they did not have the money to pay what they owed. The county program does not have judicial power to force employers to pay.

In December, a county official ordered the owners of David’s Café II to pay three times the amount they owed each employee, plus the administrative costs. But they didn’t pay.

In another investigation the Department of Labor determined that the restaurant owed money to the employees and ordered its owners to comply with a payment agreement. The Gonzálezes did not comply with that agreement either.

Desperate, the employees found employment lawyer Noah Warman, who accepted the case pro bono and filed a federal lawsuit against the restaurant owners for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act.

“I’m happy that the employees received part of their money,” Warman said. “But it’s frustrating that they had to get a lawyer and file a lawsuit to receive what was owed to them. It’s absurd.”

Under Florida law, it is not a crime to pay employees with checks that bounce.

Besides going to the authorities, the former employees of David’s Café II organized demonstrations with banners in front of the restaurant, particularly on Tuesdays, when a group of Miami Beach politicians meet there.

Pérez, who worked at the restaurant for nearly 10 years, said that in the beginning he was embarrassed to protest in front of the place.

“I would arrive with my banner and would stay quietly in a corner,” Pérez recalled. “But with time I began to loosen up and became the one that shouted the most. I was no longer embarrassed nor scared.”

Pérez became on of the principal activists of the group, appearing in televised debates and other events to denounce the restaurant owners and advocating for the labor rights of other workers.

The process of demanding back pay, Pérez said, made him more conscious of his rights. He hand-made T-shirts for himself and coworkers to wear during the protests.

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