Former owners of Kellys Brew Pub to pay servers $1,375,000 to settle wage theft lawsuit

ALBUQUERQUE—After a public hearing today, a court approved a class action settlement agreement that requires the former owners of Kellys Brew Pub and Restaurant to pay servers over a million dollars. Second Judicial District Court Judge Benjamin Chavez approved the settlement. 

The judge ruled in July 2019 that the former owners of Kellys violated Albuquerque’s minimum wage ordinance.

The former owners will pay one million of the agreed upon amount within 30 days. All parties agreed to additional time for the former owners to pay the remaining $375,000 and for the plaintiffs to investigate the former owners’ assets.

“This is money that should have been in our hands in the first place. It was ours. We earned it,” said Bianca Garcia, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “If that money had never been taken from us, it could have made differences in where some of us are today. Those funds may have helped someone pay off a student loan. Buy a car. Move to a better situation. Support a family. But it was deliberately kept from us. We will continue to fight for what is rightfully ours.”

Under Albuquerque’s minimum wage ordinance, if employers fail to pay workers their full wage, they must pay triple the wages that were withheld as well as attorneys’ fees. The business and the business owners, executives, and officers can be liable. 

In his July 2019 ruling, Judge Chavez determined that because Kellys failed to follow the rules for paying the tipped minimum wage, the former owners owed their employees the full minimum wage for those hours worked. 

Sixteen servers, represented by Youtz & Valdez, P.C. and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, brought the class action lawsuit, Atyani v. Bonfantine, in April 2016 on behalf of about 150 former servers who worked at Kellys from 2013 to 2016. The lawsuit contends that after city voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative in 2012 raising the Albuquerque minimum wage, Dennis and Janice Bonfantine “settled on an unlawful response to the wage increase: servers would pay for it themselves, out of their tips.” 

“Workers have the right to a fair and legal wage. This includes people who work for tips” said Stephanie Welch, director of workers’ rights at the Center. “Albuquerque has a strong law that holds employers accountable, whether or not there is a pandemic. Employers should know that if they don’t pay their employees a legal wage, they can be sued and end up paying much more in damages than if they had just paid their employees fairly.”

Kellys required servers to pay their employers cash each shift, calculated at two percent of their total daily sales, plus three dollars per hour they worked on the clock. After making these required payments to their employer, servers sometimes owed more in cash than they had actually earned in cash tips during the shift. When this happened, servers were required to pay the difference from their wallets or their paychecks. 

To defend against these claims, the Bonfantines argued that the Albuquerque minimum wage was invalid because it was increased through a voter initiative that put a summary of the wage increase on the 2012 ballot rather than the entire ordinance. In May 2017, the Second District Court rejected this argument, ruling that any challenge to how the 2012 election was conducted must have been made right after the election.

“We encourage every employee who is a victim of wage theft to come forward,” said Shane Youtz, an attorney at Youtz & Valdez, P.C. “You deserve to collect every dollar you worked for and are owed.“

Attorneys on the case are Stephanie Welch and Sovereign Hager of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and Shane Youtz and James Montalbano of Youtz & Valdez, P.C.

The settlement agreement approved today can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/atyani-v-bonfantine-settlement-agreement-final-and-approved-2020-09-29/

The order on Atyani v. Bonfantine can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/case-law-summary-judgement-order-atyani-v-bonfantine-2019-07-12/

The Atyani v. Bonfantine complaint can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/complaint-kellys-final-2016-04-28-filed

All hardworking New Mexicans need an equal access to unemployment aid

By Alicia Saenz.
This article appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on August 15, 2020.

Immigrant families like mine work hard to provide for our families and contribute so much to our communities. I work in maintenance at a local hospital to support myself and my son. With the layoffs brought on by COVID-19, I, like many of us, lost my job and had to seek out unemployment benefits.

Even though I am eligible for unemployment, I was never able to successfully submit my unemployment insurance application because I couldn’t get help in Spanish.

There were no Spanish instructions on the online application to help me with an issue that I had. I called the Department of Workforce Solutions to ask for help, but all of my calls except one went unanswered. The person I got a hold of did not speak Spanish, and there was no interpreter available. He told me that they would call me back, but no one ever did.

People who qualify for unemployment should be able to submit an application. For the process to be fair for all, it should accommodate the different languages of our state’s communities.

My experience trying to apply for unemployment made me feel powerless, like I didn’t exist. I didn’t get the unemployment my family desperately needs and that I qualify for just because I don’t speak English.

Like so many other people in our state, I worry about surviving this pandemic and getting back on my feet. I worried constantly about how to pay the bills, take care of my son and buy basic necessities for weeks without my income or unemployment benefits.

I am really worried about my community. Many of my Spanish-speaking friends have had the same kinds of problems with their unemployment application and haven’t received any benefits. They can’t support their kids. They can’t afford basic necessities for their families. I worry about them constantly, and I try to support them in any way that I can.

Even though we are resilient, my community is hurting. We have been left behind to fend for ourselves during this pandemic. We deserve better.

I support the efforts of the Asian Family Center, El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, Catholic Charities, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and many others that wrote a letter to DWS urging the department to provide the language support and other services our communities need to access unemployment insurance. I encourage the Department of Workforce Solutions to not delay taking action any longer.

Unemployment benefits are a lifeline during this time when work opportunities are scarce.

Now more than ever, everyone that qualifies for unemployment needs equal access to it so we can keep our families healthy and strong and come out the other end of this pandemic with the means to rebuild our communities.

Elisa Cibils, who interned at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, assisted the author with writing this in English.

Unemployment application process fails immigrants

By Huong Nguyen, New Mexico Asian Family Center
This article appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on September 7, 2020.

It is hard to believe the undue barriers Tram Tran and thousands of workers and out-of-work New Mexicans are going through to get the help they need and deserve during this difficult time.

Since April 2016, Tram has been a nail technician at Princess Spa and Nails. Her workplace shut down in March of this year. With the loss of income, Tram, her husband and their 18-month-old baby struggled to survive.

It was their first time experiencing unemployment. Tram went online to apply for unemployment benefits, but there were no applications or assistance available in Vietnamese. The process was unclear and misleading. The page crashed before she could submit, forcing her to start over again. Her account then got locked, and she didn’t understand what had happened. She called the Department of Workforce Solutions (DWS) hot line.

For weeks, it took her hours of waiting only to be randomly disconnected, or connected with representatives who said they could not address her problems. There were times when the line was transferred to a supervisor but then suddenly disconnected.

“I called DWS every single day, and I know the numbers and options by heart now,” said Tram, “It would have been OK if I just knew what was going on with my account.” She believed she put in the correct information, but the system kept saying her account wasn’t working and there were no explanations.

During this time, Tram and her family dipped into their savings to pay for groceries, diapers, mortgage, car payment and utility bills. She didn’t know how long it would last and what they could do to survive. “I am not getting much sleep, I have no idea what is next. So many people are mentally and emotionally checking out and I do not want to be one of those.”

By the time her benefits were approved, the system denied her three weeks of back pay. “It’s really unfair being denied because the system fails,” Tram said. When she called again, she was automatically sent to voicemail, and her problems went unaddressed. She was very disappointed and felt DWS didn’t listen to her. After months of waiting, Tram called and told us that she finally received her back pay on July 27.

At the New Mexico Asian Family Center (NMAFC), Tram’s story is only one among many. Since March, NMAFC, the only nonprofit in the state that provides culturally and linguistically tailored programs and services to the Pan-Asian community, started to hear many stories from community members who lost their jobs in the pandemic but couldn’t access the unemployment system. We heard these kinds of phrases over and over again: “How am I going to pay rent? How am I going to feed my family? What should I do if the bank forecloses my house?” The current system is leaving behind thousands of workers like Tram, especially non-English speaking immigrants and refugees.

On May 1, after working for weeks with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and other partners, NMAFC sent in a letter with sign-ons from over 40 organizations and individuals to DWS Secretary Bill McCamley. Since then, we have barely seen any changes.

The unemployment system is built to provide a safety net for all working New Mexicans when they need it. NMAFC and organizations supporting workers’ rights in New Mexico call on DWS to fix problems and remove barriers to unemployment benefits so that all our working families can access benefits. Tram calls on DWS to provide applicants clear in-language instructions and applications, such as a video to help non-English speakers fill out their applications correctly so that no one has to experience the same situation as she.