$1.5 Million Enforcement Action Against New York Gourmet Grocery Stores

Albany, NY (CompNewsNetwork) - At a press conference in New York City, State Labor Commissioner M. Patricia Smith today detailed the findings of a Department of Labor (DOL) investigation of Amish Market and its related stores: Zeytinia, Zeytinz and Zeytuna. The stores, which specialize in gourmet "on-the-go" cuisine and cater to an upscale clientele, operate mostly out of Manhattan, but also have locations in Queens, Croton-on-Hudson and Hyde Park. As a result of this investigation, approximately 550 workers will receive nearly $1.5 million, primarily in unpaid overtime wages. "These stores market themselves as ‘the answer to busy people's dilemma,'" said Commissioner Smith. "But while busy patrons bought gourmet meals, busy workers were working up to 60 hours per week without being paid overtime."

Commissioner Smith continued, "It's unfathomable to think that in this day and age - in these frightening economic times - an employer would actually believe it could get away with cheating workers out such an exorbitant amount of their hard earned money. This case is a prime example of collaboration, good detective work and, as always, strong labor law enforcement."

The case involving Amish Market, Zeytinia, Zeytinz and Zeytuna was referred to the Department of Labor by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1500, which has since become a member of New York State Wage Watchers, the Labor Department's pilot community policing program.

As part of their community outreach efforts, the union met with workers at one of the Amish Market stores. They realized that workers were not being paid overtime, and brought the issue to the Department of Labor's attention. Under state labor law, employers are required to pay overtime for weekly hours past 40 at 1½ times the employee's regular pay rate.

At the beginning of the case, UFCW Local 1500 served as a liaison between workers and the Department of Labor, bringing workers to the DOL's New York City offices to provide information.

DOL staff researched the stores and learned that in fact there were nine locations statewide with joint or overlapping ownership. In order to maximize the impact of the enforcement effort, a sweep was conducted by over 30 investigators from the Division of Labor Standards simultaneously at nine locations throughout the State. Investigators visited each location unannounced, at the same time on the same day, in order to prevent owners and managers from coaching employees or destroying records. Widespread overtime violations were found as a result of the sweep, with many workers clocking between 45 and 60 hours per week but being paid only "straight time" -- and not the overtime rate required by law.

In addition, the DOL found that at a few locations, the employer unlawfully paid new hires subminimum wages during a so-called "trial period." The minimum wage in New York State is $7.15 per hour and will increase to $7.25 per hour in July, 2009.

In the course of the investigation, one worker was fired for providing information to the DOL. The DOL subsequently obtained lost compensation and penalties based on the unlawful retaliation. Typically, however, DOL's statutory remedies in retaliation cases are limited to issuing a $2,000 penalty. Last year the Department proposed legislation to increase remedies in retaliation cases.

Thus far, Amish Market, Zeytinia, Zeytinz and Zeytuna have agreed to pay nearly $1.2 million dollars (approximately $300,000 for 26 employees is still in negotiations), primarily inovertime wages, due to current and former employees of the stores.

Bruce W. Both, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1500 said, "When workers do not receive the pay they are entitled to by law, both the workers and tax payers suffer. Unpaid wages also mean unpaid taxes. We can never tolerate that, especially in these difficult economic times. The New York State Department of Labor and the workers from Amish Markets, a gourmet grocery store serving high-end food products, deserve the gratitude of every taxpayer in this city because they had the courage to stand up and say: ‘This is wrong!' Today, the only thing being served and delivered by these grocery workers is justice."

This investigation was handled by more than 30 investigators from the Division of Labor Standards, located in the New York City, White Plains, and Albany district offices. Commissioner Smith also commended the work of Investigator Jorge Alvarez of the Apparel Industry/Fair Wages Task Force, who successfully negotiated settlements on behalf of workers at several stores in New York City. The investigation was carried out under the supervision of Lorelei Boylan, Director of Strategic Enforcement in the Division of Labor Standards and Carmine Ruberto, Director of the Division of Labor Standards.

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