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Epicurean faces multiple lawsuits from employees
Since 2010, several employees of Epicurean and Company have filed lawsuits alleging the owners of the campus eatery failed to pay overtime wages, a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act and D.C. Minimum Wage Act.
Three plaintiffs who say they worked overtime on several occasions filed the most recent lawsuit on July 30.
According to their complaint, none of the three plaintiffs received the appropriate FLSA-approved pay rate after working more than 40 hours per week on several occasions.
“At least one, and possibly more of the employees, did not work any overtime hours” said Epicurean and Company’s attorney Kimberly Jandrain in an interview with the Voice in response to the allegations.
“The hours worked by the employees are set forth in their time records, which my clients have maintained and which will be available to plaintiffs in discovery,” Jandrain wrote in a subsequent email.
However, Sally Abrahamson, one of the four attorneys defending the employees, refutes this claim.
“Every single one of our plaintiffs worked overtime,” she said.
The complaint was filed as a collective action. After it was filed, other workers chose to join the lawsuit.
“This is not uncommon,” said Abrahamson, a former volunteer attorney at the D.C. Employment Justice Center. “Approximately 70 percent of restaurants are not complying with the [labor] laws, and low-wage workers are very vulnerable, especially in this economy. “
When asked about the case, Chang Wook Chon, Epicurean and Company’s manager, said the dispute is due to “miscommunication.”
Epicurean seems to have a history of tension with its employees. In 2010, groups of workers sued Chon for the same reasons in two separate complaints. The cases were sealed and then reopened on July 12, 2012.
One of the 2010 complaints explains that after Chon threatened several of the workers with firing and reporting them to immigration authorities in 2010, the plaintiffs stepped out of the case.
The complaint states that Chon “engaged in a systematic campaign to coerce the workers not to pursue the lawsuit” by posing “threats, misrepresentations, and false promises.”
In addition, the former employees claim that Chon “monitored communications regarding this case to ensure that they would not participate in this suit.”
Jandrain categorically denied these charges as well.
“We contend that these allegations are absolutely false,” she said, “and have been manufactured to excuse the plaintiff’s failure to pursue his overtime claims in a timely fashion.”
True or not, these allegations highlight concerns about the treatment of immigrant workers in the U.S. economy.
According to the Brookings Institute, 23.1 million immigrants were part of the civilian labor force in 2010, making up to 16.4 percent of the total labor market. Sadly, immigrants are the most vulnerable group to illegal labor practices.
Nick Wertsch, program coordinator for the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and Working Poor at Georgetown, laments the situation.
“[Violation of labor rights] happens more to immigrant workers than it happens to non-immigrant ones. And there are a couple of reasons for that,” he said. “I think that one of the biggest reasons is just language itself. A lot of times if you are not a native English speaker, then people will try to take advantage of you.”
All workers involved in the suit are Latin-American, and none are fluent in English.
Wertsch also expressed concern for the threat Chon supposedly posed to his employees.
“You can’t abuse your power like that. You are supposed to have the right to file a complaint without being worried about retaliation at the workplace,” he said.
But Elizabeth Reyes, who has been working for Chon at Epicurean for two years, says the power abuse comes from the other side.
“[Workers] are the ones who abuse the owners’ trust,” she said. “The managers are extremely flexible and understanding. I’ve been working here for two years and I’ve never been victim of any kind of abuse.”
Reyes said workers sometimes blame the restaurant for problems not caused in the workplace, such as “when they get hurt outside of work, but claim the injuries occurred while at Epicurean.”
Reyes also questions the state in which many workers show up to work. She recalls Oscar Donaldo Martinez Veliz, one of the plaintiffs in the 2012 complaint, as irresponsible and abusive, saying she has “seen him come into work drunk on several occasions.“
Wertsch says these allegations are immaterial to the cases at hand.
“If the company is, in fact, withholding workers’ wages because those workers are violating other rules, then it would still be important for the company to be transparent in its dealings with workers,” Wertcsch said. “Georgetown’s Just Employment Policy is designed to prevent arbitrary firing or penalties and give workers a way to address grievances within the system in a way that does not endanger their job.”
Because the cases are still open, Abrahamson and Jandrain refused to provide further comment.
Judges are expected to reach a verdict on both of the 2010 cases on Sept. 13, and on this year’s lawsuit by the end of the month.