A taqueria chain in California has been ordered by the Department of Labor to pay $140,000 in back pay and damages to 35 employees for a range of infractions, including hiring a fake priest to elicit “confessions” from its workers.
On June 12, the U.S. Department of Labor announced the results of an investigation and civil court case involving Taqueria Garibaldi, which has a location in Sacramento and one in Roseville, and its owners and operators. In the news release, the department reported finding several violations: that the owners illegally paid employee tips to managers, denied overtime pay and hired a fake priest to uncover suspected wrongdoings by employees.
A former employee of Taqueria Garibaldi, Maria Parra, testified in federal court that the restaurant offered employees a “person identified as a priest” to hear confessions during work hours. The employee said the priest urged workers to “get the sins out,” asking workers about “sins” that only had to do with their employment.
“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,” said Parra in a sworn declaration. “The priest asked if I had stolen anything at work, if I was late to my employment, if I did anything to harm my employer and if I had any bad intentions toward my employment.”
Che Garibaldi Inc., operator of Taqueria Garibaldi, and its lawyers did not immediately respond to TODAY.com’s request for comment.
“Federal wage and hour investigators have seen corrupt employers try all kinds of scams to shortchange workers and to intimidate or retaliate against employees but a northern California restaurant’s attempt to use an alleged priest to get employees to admit workplace 'sins' may be among the most shameless,” wrote the Department of Labor in a news release.
Agents in the department’s Wage and Hour Division also found that Taqueria Garibaldi denied employees overtime pay for hours over 40 in a workweek — a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The investigation additionally uncovered that the employer had illegally paid managers from the employee tip pool, threatened employees with retaliation and adverse immigration consequences for cooperating with the department, and fired one worker who they believed had complained to the department.
On May 8, Che Garibaldi and its three owners and operators agreed to a consent judgment, and the judge ordered them to pay $70,000 in back wages and an equal amount in liquidated damages to 35 employees, totalling $140,000, as well as $5,000 in civil penalties "due to the willful nature of their violations."
“Under oath, an employee of Taqueria Garibaldi explained how the restaurant offered a supposed priest to hear their workplace ‘sins’ while other employees reported that a manager falsely claimed that immigration issues would be raised by the department’s investigation,” Marc Pilotin, regional solicitor of labor, said in the release. “This employer’s despicable attempts to retaliate against employees were intended to silence workers, obstruct an investigation and prevent the recovery of unpaid wages.”
The fake priest's identity still remains unknown.
“The person in question is not a priest of the Diocese of Sacramento,” Bryan Visitacion, a spokesman for the Diocese of Sacramento, said in an email to the New York Times, adding that he didn’t know who the man was.
Pilotin also said that the department will act swiftly to make clear that immigration status has no bearing on workers’ rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act, adding that it will not tolerate “workplace intimidation.”
The court specifically ordered Taqueria Garibaldi not to take any action to stop employees from asserting their rights as workers, to not interfere with any department investigation or discriminate, threaten or fire any employee who even appeared to have spoken with investigators.
In the time since the ruling, people have flooded the restaurant’s Yelp and Facebook pages with one-star reviews and negative comments, with one Yelp reviewer writing, “Sounds like the owners of this place need to go to confession.”