First, Park Slope residents had to feel bad about eating non-organic food and having a high carbon footprint. Now, they even have to confront their liberal guilt when ordering in.
Last week, the state Labor Department claimed that 25 Slope restaurants underpaid their mostly immigrant workers as little as $2.75 per hour — a charge that has left Park Slope reeling, as customers struggle to reconcile their political sympathies with their appetites.
Much-loved stalwarts such as Aunt Suzie’s, Taqueria, Bogota, Sette, Coco Roco, Olive Vine, Uncle Moe’s and Bagel World were caught in the dragnet, which included fines and negotiated settlements that stemmed from more than $910,000 in allegedly underpaid wages.
“Wage theft happens not only in dimly lit factories or grim depressed neighborhoods,” state Labor Commissioner Patricia Smith said in a statement. “Even our very nicest neighborhoods sometimes have sweatshops on their main streets.”
The investigation — which comes in the wake of a sweep earlier in the year in Bushwick — came only as a result of casual conversations that Labor Department workers, who happen to live in Park Slope, had with their food deliverymen.
Eventually, 16 investigators descended on the neighborhood, interviewing workers and examining restaurants’ books.
Still, none of the workers who spoke with The Brooklyn Paper bore ill will toward their employers — in fact, they were grateful for the money.
“The boss looks for ways to help people, actually. Here we are fine,” one employee who wished to remain anonymous said in Spanish.
The workers weren’t upset, but in Park Slope, where buying a Fair Trade heirloom tomato that costs $2.50 is a badge of honor, many were shocked to find that they were benefitting from a system propped up on cheap labor.
“In this community, this happens?” said Sheri Saltzberg, a 35-year resident of the neighborhood. “It makes me question how those restaurants treat their staff.”
Others were disappointed that their favorite restaurants had been accused of such abuses.
“I was sad because those were places I had gone to,” said David Chorlian, a member of the Park Slope Food Co-Op. “One of them was Miriam’s and another was Aunt Suzie’s. I was stupidly surprised that this happened.”
Most of the fines were the result of excessive workweeks at salaries below the minimum wage. But roughly half of the underpaid wages were allegedly at two restaurants: Coco Roco and Olive Vine.
The eateries were cited for underpaying their workers a whopping $587,000. In one example, food deliverymen were paid a meager $210 for a 70-hour workweek. The two restaurants’ abuses were so excessive, in fact, that the Labor Department expanded its search to two other locations of both eateries, a spokesperson said.
Coco Roco owner Zach Sonshine said only that there was a “misunderstanding” with the Labor Department. Olive Vine Café did not return any calls.
Still, owners who did agree to talk bristled at the notion that they were abusing their workers.
Martin Medina, the owner of Rachel’s on Fifth Avenue and La Taqueria on Seventh Avenue, insisted that he treated his workers fairly and that they did not work excessive hours. Instead, he likened Labor Department inspectors to “meter maids” who bully small business owners and never leave without levying a fine.
“They say I’m not paying overtime or giving lunch breaks, it’s a total lie!” said a fuming Medina. “If I was treating my workers bad, why would they stay with me?”
Indeed, some restaurants ended up on the list for seemingly minor infractions.
Melissa Murphy, owner of Sweet Melissa Patisserie said that her bakery cafe underpaid its workers by just $382 over two years. She attributed the mistake to clerical error.
Minor or not, even tiny amounts of money are a big deal to immigrant workers.
“A lot of people with low skill levels don’t have a lot of job options,” said Terri Gerstein, a deputy commissioner with the Department of Labor. “They’ll stay in a bad situation for fear of complaining or retaliation from the government.”
Some Slope residents are talking boycott, but most owners seem more concerned with their profit margins than their tarnished reputations. Irene LoRe, the owner of Aunt Suzie’s, which allegedly underpaid its workers $10,196, even testified last week against a bill requiring paid sick days for workers (see story on this page).
LoRe slammed the Labor Deparmtent for “just grabbing headlines during the Christmas season.”
She added that she pays her workers fairly, but undocumented employees often lack supporting evidence.
“[Labor] nails us on paperwork, so we can’t prove that we pay our workers fairly,” she said.
In the end, it’s unlikely that any boycott will take hold, added renowned restaurateur Alan Harding, best known for the now-closed Patois and the still humming Pacifico. Despite all the righteous chatter, customers are just like the restaurant owners — always trying to save a buck, he said.
“There is this ‘Oh woe is the deliveryman’ idea, but God forbid the turkey burger goes up $2 to reflect the required worker’s insurance and fair wage,” Harding said.
And it’s not as though cheap, hard-working labor is just going to disappear. As such, Medina said he would fight the fines to the bitter end.
“The immigrants I love,” he said. “It’s the Americans I hate.”
— with Aaron Short