A Question for Foodies: Do Awful Labor Practices Leave a Bad Taste in Your Mouth?

I ask this because Boston's local gourmet pizza chain, Upper Crust, which is loved by foodies, has been massively exploiting its undocumented workers:

Tobins [the owner of Upper Crust] needed lots of kitchen help; the Brazilians worked hard and didn't complain about workweeks that routinely stretched to 80 hours. Marilac prospered as Upper Crust's immigrant employees sent thousands of dollars home, and the company swiftly expanded from its original store in Beacon Hill to one upscale suburb after another.

Over time, however, this amicable but unlawful relationship would unravel. Documents from a recent class action lawsuit show that as Tobins expanded his pizza empire, he began to exploit his immigrant workers. The employees took their complaints to the US Department of Labor, which ordered the chain to dole out hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay. The department is now investigating wage violations at Upper Crust for a second time.

Yep, investigated twice for labor violations. And why would the owner of Upper Crust do this? Greed:

UPPER CRUST began to cut corners on labor costs as it grappled with expansion, said Patrick Joyce, a former operations manager who worked at Upper Crust for seven years. The immigrants say they took on more hours. The bonuses and employee parties that had sweetened the job ended, and requests for raises were regularly rejected...

At the same time, some of the Americans who staffed the chain's counters and worked as managers received raises, they say. Tobins prospered more visibly, using his newfound wealth to pay for expensive cars, a fancy boat, and even a private plane.

"The stakes got higher, and it got more cutthroat,'' said Joyce, who said he left in June after becoming frustrated by the working conditions. "It was unbearable.''

Here's how the workers were paid (italics mine):

"I just worked all the time, 80 hours and sometimes more,'' Pinto said. "They said they were too busy, and, 'I can't give you [time] off; you must work.' I was very tired.''

Sergio Soares Lima Filho Jr. and Marcos Rodrigues da Silva were more than tired. They were upset after finding out illegal workers at some other area restaurants were receiving time and a half after 40 hours. Upper Crust's practice was to write one check for a worker's first 40 hours, and an additional check, at the same rate, to cover extra hours. Some workers said they were paid entirely in cash.

I would also note that this 'saved' Upper Crust from having to pay more in payroll taxes. Tobins is also a caring and decent guy:

Da Silva, who entered the country with a fake passport he bought in Portugal, told Tobins that employees were planning to strike unless they received raises or overtime pay. Tobins became incensed. They didn't have any rights, he shouted, according to three former workers and a manager present at the meeting. If they wanted more money, Tobins said, they should find another job. Then he fired da Silva and Filho on the spot....

Federal labor laws require employers to pay workers overtime, even if the workers are in the country illegally. The law is intended to dissuade companies from hiring such workers as a way to scrimp on payroll.

After Tobins was fined by the Labor Department, he decided to recover his costs:

Instead, Upper Crust began drastically reducing weekly paychecks to recoup the federally ordered payouts. Pinto, for example, started earning $455 for 80 hours, according to copies of his paychecks and time cards submitted as part of the lawsuit. That is about $5.70 an hour, or $2.30 below minimum wage. Pinto said Upper Crust deducted more than $8,000 over about seven months -- the full overtime payment he received -- and then fired him...

Upper Crust, Joyce said, also allegedly devised a plan to keep checks intended for workers who had moved back to Brazil. Shannon Liss-Riordan, one of the lawyers representing the employees, said the workers discussed with the Labor Department accusations that Upper Crust forged signatures on checks issued to employees who were no longer in the United States.

I never did care for their pizza, at least at the Newbury Street location (I tried it twice, and didn't like it either time), but I'm definitely not buying their food anymore--why give an asshole like Tobins my money?

Kudos to The Boston Globe for covering this. And while I'm glad to see the Labor Department prosecute this, they acted in September 2009, yet there was no public disclosure of these violations. Labor violations should be made public, not kept quiet. Where's Julian Assange when you need him?

More like this

Sigh. That man would engage in slavery if there were any possible way for him to do so.

This is worse than I've seen in other restaurant chains, but not by much. Long hours, low pay, and no overtime is almost industry standard for immigrants and citizen workers alike.

I don't live in Boston; I don't know what they charge for a pizza.

But ... if anyone is truly interested in fair wage practices they need to ask themselves every time they buy anything ... would they be willing to produce the item for the sticker price?

Everyone who has ever lined up for a 2 for 1 $ 9.99 pizza deal is an accessory? enabler? to the crime committed here.

All work has value. I can't remember where I heard the quote but it goes something like this... There is minimum wage and then there is minimal wage. Some people won't be happy until everyone else makes minimal wage.

Rumors of stolen dough recipes, worker exploitation conviction and their latest woes will not dissuade the customer from buying pies at $20. They've built an aura around their business that places their product above the rest, but maybe the story about the large boat and the personal aircraft will make people think twice. On the other hand, this is no mom & pop pizza parlor operation. They've targeted the wealthiest areas in Boston and have built their following based on their exclusivity, so an unofficial boycott may take more time to register an impact.

I don't understand why people who are illegally in the country have recourse to the taxpayer-funded civil court system.
The employer should be prosecuted in the criminal courts, and his employees dealt with by the migration service, ie, deported.

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 05 Dec 2010 #permalink

We have a similar case right now in DC: Restaurateur Roberto Donna has been ordered to pay $527,000 to 12 workers who he paid improperly over the course of almost 20 years.

In this case, the restaurants in question have been closed for a while, so whether people should keep dining there is moot. But I wonder how many other restaurant owners are breaking wage and hour laws. In both these situations, we know about it because the workers sued.

Yeah Vince, justice really should only be for those who can afford to pay for it, right? I mean, Jebus, pretty soon poor people will be expecting lawyers to defend them - even if they're poor! And why the hell should said unrepresented poor people get the money they worked for? Honest pay for honest work is for citizens only (and not any anchor baby citizen either, only a Real Amurrican!)

You, sir, need an application of cluebat to face

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 06 Dec 2010 #permalink