Restaurant Used Fake Priest to Hear Workers’ Confessions

From a Washington Post story by Shera Avi-Yonah headlined “Restaurant used fake priest to hear workers’ confessions”:

The owners of a Northern California taqueria chain will pay $140,000 in back wages and damages after federal investigators found they used a fake priest to elicit “confessions” of wrongdoing from their employees, the Labor Department announced this month.

Labor officials began looking into allegations that employees weren’t being paid overtime wages at the Sacramento-area chain Taqueria Garibaldi in May 2021. As investigators contacted employees, they learned that a man who purported to be a priest had been introduced by the owner “to get the sins out” of the restaurant workers, one former employee said in an affidavit filed in the case.

The priest began the meetings with a prayer, Labor Department investigator Raquel Alfaro testified last year. He then asked the employees whether they were loyal to owner Eduardo Hernandez and whether they had ever stolen from him.

“As soon as the confession started, I found the conversation to be strange and unlike normal confessions, where I would tell a priest about the sins I wanted to confess,” former employee Maria Parra said in her sworn declaration. “The priest mostly had work-related questions, which I thought was strange.

Hernandez told another employee that they “needed to help him” by telling investigators they worked only eight hours each day, five days a week, according to court filings. Hernandez also asked the employee to manipulate timecards that suggested otherwise, filings stated. In reality, the employee said, they regularly worked more than 40 hours a week and had only one day off, according to a declaration the Labor Department filed in the case.

Restaurant management also threatened employees with “adverse immigration consequences” and used pooled tips to pay managers, the Labor Department said June 12. Another unnamed employee told investigators that manager Alejandro Rodriguez “would not let us sit down and eat,” forcing workers to hide in the refrigerator during meals.

The government called the scheme “among the most shameless” acts of employer intimidation and retaliation it has seen. A federal judge ordered Hernandez, his co-owner Hector Manual Martinez Galindo and Rodriguez to pay 35 employees a total of $140,000 in back wages and damages last month.

“This employer’s despicable attempts to retaliate against employees were intended to silence workers, obstruct an investigation and prevent the recovery of unpaid wages,” Labor Department regional solicitor Marc Pilotin said in a statement.

The government was unable to identify the man who acted as a priest, though Alfaro testified that employees knew him as Hernandez’s friend. Local church authorities are “completely confident he was not a priest of the Diocese of Sacramento,” spokesman Bryan J. Visitacion said in a statement..

The three men must also pay the Labor Department $5,000 and provide the government with employment and payroll records upon request, per the consent judgment.

Shera Avi-Yonah is an intern on The Post’s General Assignment desk. Before joining The Post, she interned at Bloomberg News, the Daily Memphian in Memphis, CBS News and the American Prospect.

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