Did the owners of a popular string of Peruvian restaurants work their immigrant employees up to 14 hours a day for no pay? Or were they simply the victims of some lousy lawyering?
The fate of the family-owned El Pollo Inka restaurant chain may depend on the answer, after a federal judge this week awarded three former waiters at the Southland chicken restaurants $1.1 million in back wages and damages.
U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins entered the judgment Monday after El Pollo Inka Inc. and founders Salomon and Rosa Jaime and other family members who are partners in the business failed to respond to the Sept. 30 lawsuit.
In the suit, the waiters--Carlos Vargas, Monica Gonzales and Alejandro Flores--claim they were paid only tips and no hourly wages or overtime when working at El Pollo Inka locations in Lawndale, Torrance and Anaheim. The suit also claims their employers threatened the three with physical harm and deportation to their native Peru if they reported the alleged violations to authorities.
"This judgment sends a message . . . that there is a hefty price that employers must pay for violating labor laws," said Frank Coughlin, attorney for the former employees.
But the lawyer representing El Pollo Inka says his clients are suffering for the mistakes of their previous attorneys, who simply failed to answer the complaint on time. Vital D'Carpio says the Jaimes can prove that they paid their employees properly, if given a chance to do so in court. The judge will decide whether to let the judgment stand or to grant a trial at a hearing scheduled for Jan. 12.
"Mr. Jaime has showed me checks that these people were paid on a weekly basis," D'Carpio said. "The judge hasn't had a chance to hear our evidence."
The allegations against the Jaimes come amid a flurry of charges against Southland employers accused of exploiting immigrants in industries from clothing to construction.
Although the biggest headlines have been generated by illegal garment-making operations, such as the infamous El Monte sweatshop case where workers were held in slave-like conditions, substandard wages and conditions abound in the Southland's ethnic restaurant trade, according to Roy Hong, executive director of the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates.
Native Peruvians Salomon and Rosa Jaime launched El Pollo Inka in a Lawndale mini-mall 10 years ago, selling their Gardena home to finance the venture and recruiting relatives to staff it. The eatery's low prices and Peruvian fare such as pollo a la brasa (rotisserie chicken) and lime-marinated ceviche proved such a hit with customers that the business now boasts seven Southern California locations--Lawndale, Anaheim, Gardena, Torrance, Hermosa Beach, Glendora and Los Angeles.
Although the vast majority of the chain's customers are white, El Pollo Inka retains a devoted following among the Southland's Peruvian enclave, where the Jaimes have been active in community affairs.
"The family has always been very supportive and is always donating things to the Peruvian community," said D'Carpio, who is also president of the local Peruvian Chamber of Commerce. "They are well-known in the community. Very hospitable and generous."
But the allegations made by their former employees paint a very different picture of the Jaimes.
According to the complaint, Vargas was employed at the Torrance and Lawndale locations of El Pollo Inka from April 1995 to December 1996. The suit alleges that Vargas worked seven days a week, more than nine hours a day, including a 14-hour shift every Saturday, and received no wages or overtime pay except customer tips from his jobs as a bartender and waiter.
The suit says Gonzales worked at the Lawndale location from April 1994 to June 1997 and that Flores was employed in the Anaheim restaurant from April 1995 to June 1997. Their claims of tips-only employment were similar to those made by Vargas. Gonzalez alleged that she knew of at least 70 employees, who worked only for gratuities, with no wages or overtime.
The suit further alleges that the three employees were threatened with "loss of their jobs, deportation and physical harm" if they complained to authorities.
Coughlin declined to say whether the three employees were legal residents or undocumented workers, citing attorney-client privilege.
A Jaime family member refused to comment on the lawsuit, referring all calls to D'Carpio.