Dozens of protesters accused a pair of Santa Fe restaurants of wage theft on Friday as they carried signs and chanted through megaphones. In one case, police officers were summoned to the scene but made no arrests.
It's the latest protest in a workers rights movement that's gaining momentum in a city with one one of the highest minimum wages in the country—at $10.84.
The rally, organized by the United Worker Center of New Mexico, an offshoot of the Santa Fe-based Somos un Pueblo Unido, took place in front of Horseman's Haven Café in the morning and then moved in front of the Korean-owned Maki Yaki Restaurant in the afternoon.
Organizers allege that the pair of restaurants have failed to pay more than a half a dozen workers a combined $150,000 in wages over the last five years—in violation of the city's minimum wage—and refusing to pay overtime.
At the Horseman's Haven Café, police officers responded to the protest after the owner called to complain that the protesters were trespassing on private property.
But Marcela Diaz, executive director of Somos, said organizers were indeed on public property and the owner of the restaurant, Kim Gonzales, was merely angry because she currently has five cases of wage theft pending against her.
Neither owners responded to requests from SFR to comment on the matter, but they have hired attorneys to respond to letters from the City of Santa Fe, a process that is being handled by Zachary Shandler, the city's assistant attorney.
While the minimum wage law in Santa Fe, called the Living Wage Ordinance, was enacted as far back as 2003, only recently has the city seen an increase in the number of complaints.
According to Shandler, if an aggrieved employee writes a complaint letter to the city, the city will ask the employer to respond in kind, and then the employee is allowed a rebuttal before a determination is made.
To date this year, he tells SFR, four determinations have found employers guilty, but employees are appealing the cases because the checks are minuscule, totaling under $1,500 combined. In those cases, Maki Yaki wrote a pair of checks, one for $165 and the other for $5; Mangiamo Pronto wrote one for $444 and Chocolate Maven, $645.
Right now, six cases are pending against Horseman's Haven Café, and a pair are being appealed at Maki Yaki. At both restaurants, some employees have filed grievances with the city and are still working at the restaurants while they await their outcome.
Others are no longer working at the establishments but are appealing the decisions. One is Veronica Velazquez Ruiz, who worked at Maki Yaki, off Zia Road and St. Francis Drive, for six years. A mother of two, Velazquez Ruiz said in five of those six years, she was not paid minimum wage.
She says Hwidong Park, Maki Yaki's owner, only paid her $500 in cash for every two weeks, and that she is owed $45,000. A determination in her case resulted in Park writing her a $5 check, which she Xeroxed, blew up and then brought to the rally, calling the outcome of her case "disrespectful."
"I worked for this man for nearly six years, and I worked hard for him," Velazquez Ruiz said in Spanish. "I worked overtime. And this is what I get? Five dollars? There's something wrong with the system."
Park refused to comment on the case but sent one of his employees, Adric Lucero, to speak for him. Lucero said that in the eight years that he's worked for Park, he's never had a problem with him.
"This comes as a shock to us," he says in front of television reporters and camera flashes. "To the best of my knowledge Mr. Park has been good to us in the front and in the back."
Another worker, Ivan Hernandez, claims that Park owes him $7,000 for failing to pay him minimum wage his first year there in 2011, then failing to pay him overtime in the following three years.
A resident of Chihuahua, Mexico, and an elementary teacher there, Hernandez came to Santa Fe because he heard that there was more opportunity for advancement in the United States.
Yet he would not say whether he had legal permission to work in the United States.
"That's irrelevant," says the 30-year-old Hernandez. "This is about my rights as a worker."
Diaz agreed, noting that workers don't want their complaints to be framed as "documented versus undocumented."
Instead, she said, "They want to be looked at as citizens of Santa Fe. They're a part of the community here. Many have been here for 15 years, 20 years. It doesn't matter what their status is."
Diaz said all workers are protected under the Fair Labor Standard Act and the city's Living Wage Ordinance, regardless their status, which means they ought to be compensated for their losses.
"This isn't the story about 'Oh, I'm a poor exploited immigrant," Diaz says. "This is about workers rights in Santa Fe."