Update: Owner denies threatening anybody.
The US Department of Labor yesterday sued Sound Bites Cafe and its owner, Yasser Mirza, on charges he reacted to an employee seeking back overtime pay by threatening to have something bad happen to his family unless he called off federal investigators looking into the issue.
In the suit, filed in US District Court in Boston, the Department of Labor also accuses Mirza of trying to get other employees - at least one of whom also was seeking back overtime - to clam up when investigators contacted them.
The department is initially seeking a temporary restraining order to make Mirza leave his workers alone while the department continues its investigations into working conditions at the Ball Square eatery - and to post prominent notices about their rights, including the right to time and a half when they work more than 40 hours a week and the right to file complaints with the government. Longer term, the government is seeking punitive damages against him.
According to the suit, Fabian Zuleta, who has worked as a cook at Sound Bites since 2009, began asking Mirza in May, 2020, to pay him for all the overtime he said he had worked without getting time and a half - some 20 hours of overtime a week for nearly three years, for which he was only paid his regular salary of $17 an hour. Mirza refused, the feds say.
On several other occasions (including one incident that occurred in front of customers) Defendant Mirza responded to Zuleta’s oral inquiries about overtime pay by berating Zuleta, cursing at Zuleta, and telling Zuleta to get out of the restaurant.
In January, 2021, Zuleta sued in state court. In response, the Labor Department charges, Mirza not only refused to pay him for the owed overtime, but retaliated by reducing Zuleta's hours, assigning him to tasks such as plumbing repairs and bathroom cleaning and "regularly threatening to report Zuleta to the police or other law enforcement."
In May, Zuleta filed a complaint with the Labor Department's Wage and Hours Division. That made Mirza step up his intimidation, the suit alleges:
Mirza urged Zuleta to make the government investigation go away and promised there would be consequences if he did not - Mirza illustrated the point by stating that Mirza had a relative who was a “killer” and suggested that it was possible to pay people to harm or kill Zuleta’s family members.
At the same time, Mirza told his other workers to lie to Labor investigators, the lawsuit charges:
Defendants instructed employees to tell government investigators that Defendants paid employees on a salary as opposed to hourly basis, that Defendants paid their employees required overtime premiums, and that Defendant Mirza was a good boss who did not abuse employees. ...
Defendant Mirza has stated to employees that there would be consequences, including termination, for employees who did not follow these instructions.
The feds say Mirza agreed to pay Zuleta back overtime to settle the state lawsuit in late 2021, but that didn't do anything about the Labor Department investigation, so Mirza alleged tried another route to persuade Zuleta to get the feds off his back:
In late 2021 and early 2022, Zuleta received a number of phone calls from private or unknown numbers in which callers identified themselves as a police officer or other law enforcement officer, and stated that Zuleta should "get rid of the case" or something bad would happen to Zuleta or his family. These phone calls overlapped in time with Zuleta settling his private state lawsuit with Defendants (and collecting back wages pursuant to that settlement), as well as the time period when Zuleta was continuing to assist the Wage and Hour Division’s ongoing investigation of Defendants. Zuleta reported the threatening calls to the Wage and Hour Division in late February 2022, a couple of weeks after receiving the last such call. As a result of Defendant Mirza’s actions, Zuleta fears not only that Zuleta is in imminent danger of being fired, but also fears for Zuleta’s own physical safety as well as that of Zuleta’s family.
Breakfast wars in Somerville.