March 11, 2012
Restaurant workers get justice
Appearances, as we all know, can be deceiving and the case of Veranda, a posh Manhattan restaurant and lounge, proves it once again.
Few could imagine that a place as welcoming to its patrons as this Greenwich Village eatery could also be abusive and unfair to its workers.
But as the case of multimillionaire celebrity-chef Mario Batali shows, the exploitation of vulnerable workers — a great many of them immigrants and minorities — is a fact of life even in the most celebrated and expensive restaurants in the city.
As reported by The Daily News last Thursday, Batali was ordered to pay — listen to this — $5.25 million to 1,100 workers in seven of his swanky restaurants who claim to have been cheated out of tips.
In the case of Veranda, an eatery owned by by Egyptian immigrant Moutaz Ali, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office found that behind the establishment’s attractive glass facade 25 workers were routinely robbed of their hard-earned wages and tips. Two of the workers who dared question the company’s practices were summarily fired.
“Every person, regardless of the job or position, has the right to speak the truth about his or her working conditions,” Schneiderman said.
The Veranda case, of course, pales next to Batali’s giant settlement, but it is unmistakable proof of Schneiderman’s determination to enforce labor laws.
“These are difficult economic times for workers and for many small businesses. That’s all the more reason for our office to aggressively enforce the law, and use every tool at our disposal to prevent an economic race to the bottom that drives workers and their families into poverty, and creates an unequal playing field for honest employers,” Schneiderman said. “By scaring employees into silence, employer retaliation undermines basic labor law protections.”
As part of a settlement with the attorney general, Veranda, located at 130 Seventh Ave., will finally pay the cheated workers what is rightfully theirs: $150,000 in restitution for employees who were paid below the minimum wage and did not receive overtime pay as required by law. In addition the eatery was ordered to shell out $50,000 in restitution for damages, lost wages, and penalties for wrongfully terminating the two complaining workers.
“When I first heard about a possible victory, I could not believe it,” said Marco Jacal, one of the fired workers. “I am thankful to Make the Road New York for fighting to pass the Wage Theft Prevention Act. I also want to thank the attorney general."
Make the Road, a Brooklyn-based grass roots group, was part of a coalition of low-income workers, small businesses, organized labor, nonprofits and legal services providers that worked tirelessly for passage of the Wage Theft Prevention Act that went into effect April 9, 2011.
But almost one year after the act became law, rogue employees keep trying to cheat their workers. Veranda is only the best known of four labor violation cases handled by Schneiderman’s office so far this year.
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