May 28, 2014

Demonstration Highlights Wage Theft Problem in Food, Landscape Industries

No more wage theft! That was the message of some 20 placard-carrying demonstrators who gathered in front of Cheeburger Cheeburger on Nassau Street last week.

The demonstrators, many of whom were Princeton University students and staff, showed their support for Irma Munoz de Gonzalez, a former employee of Cheeburger Cheeburger’s Lawrenceville branch.

In a lawsuit pending in the federal district court in Trenton, Ms. Munoz alleges she was not paid the legally-required overtime rate of pay for work over 40 hours per week.

“Wage theft is a significant problem for the Latino community, which is frequently victimized by employers in the Princeton area, especially restaurants and landscape businesses,” said attorney Roger Martindell, who is representing Ms. Munoz.

Mr. Martindell said in a press release that the demonstration was intended to educate consumers to harmful labor practices, especially wage theft, at stores where they shop.

Additional demonstrations against Princeton-area wage theft are planned for the near future, he said.

According to Mr. Martindell, wage theft is “fairly prevalent” in Princeton and is both a criminal and a civil offense.

Ms. Munoz worked for the Cheeburger Cheeburger franchise for about a year in the Lawrence and Hamilton stores. She came forward with her complaint after she terminated her employment in July of 2013 and the suit was filed in November of last year.

Ms. Munoz was not employed at the Princeton eatery. The Princeton, Hamilton, and Lawrence restaurants are owned by the same franchisee of the national Cheeburger Cheeburger chain.

“What’s interesting here is that an individual employee can sue not only on behalf of himself or herself but also on behalf of similarly situated employees even if those employees do not come forward and make a complaint on their own behalf,” said Mr. Martindell. “By bringing this action, Ms. Munoz, is representing the interests of any current employees who may be suffering from wage theft. They are covered by her legal action and could benefit from it.”

“It’s a kind of class action suit,” said Mr. Martindell, who said that he hopes for financial compensation for Ms. Munoz as well as changes in the practices of the company.

According to Police Chief Nick Sutter, there were some 10 cases of wage theft investigated and rectified through mediation last year in Princeton. Mr. Sutter has described wage theft as a crime that takes advantage of people with undocumented status.

But for the purposes of the law, “the immigration status of an individual employee is irrelevant,” said Mr. Martindell. “People living hand-to-mouth are less likely to bring a complaint of this sort and while that is a practical concern for individuals, the law protects workers from retaliation from their employer, who could be fined for retaliation against anyone who brings a complaint against them for wage theft,” he said.

“There is much discussion nationally about raising the minimum wage to deal with income inequality in our society. But too frequently consumers are unaware that workers are also hurt by the failure of employers to pay minimum wage, or the legally-required time-and-one-half overtime rate of pay, even at current low-level legally required wage rates,” said Mr. Martindell.

“Wage theft is an all too common occurrence in the Latino worker community, and some local restaurants are frequent violators,” said John Heilner, volunteer chair of the Human Services Commission subcommittee on immigration issues. “The purpose of the demonstration was to heighten awareness of restaurant-goers to abuse of the restaurant workers who serve them.”

“Wage theft” is the generic term that describes failure to pay wages according to federal or state legal requirements, as set forth in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act or the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law or New Jersey Wage Payment Law.

Persons who believe they have been the victim of wage theft can come to either the Human Services Office at One Monument Drive (the former Borough Hall), to the Princeton Police Department, or to the Latin America Legal Defense and Education Fund (