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A Taqueria's Undercover Priest and Other Employment Antics

Surprised vicar priest in the confession booth
By A.J. Firstman and Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

A priest walks into a Mexican restaurant and asks to 'taco bout' your sins.

It sounds like the kind of bad joke you'd get from your dad at the next family reunion. And while it isbad, it isn't a joke. Recently, a priest walked into a California joint called Taqueria Garibaldi — but he wasn't who he pretended to be. Nevertheless, he took confession. And he took notes.

A bit of context: Taqueria Garibaldi is a small Sacramento-based restaurant chain that's gotten into hot water in recent years after a spate of complaints, investigations, and fines levied by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). If this all sounds pretty boring and run-of-the-mill labor law to you, hang on to your habits. One of the taco shop owners even hired someone to impersonate a priest in order to rat out his employees. Ironically, the boss's own transgressions were enough to make a nun blush.

Shady Labor Practices Revealed

Back in 2021, the DOL launched an investigation into the business practices of Taqueria Garibaldi's owners and one of its managers. Labor Secretary Martin Walsh filed the department's initial 12-page complaint in May 2022 after investigators revealed evidence of a slew of labor violations. These included refusing to pay overtime for hours worked, letting supervisors and managers keep some of the workers' tips, failing to maintain accurate records of hours worked and wages paid, violating COVID-19 safety protocols, and even ordering workers to falsify timecards and mislead investigators – and threatening retaliation if they didn't.

Instead of paying their employees the overtime they were legally owed, the taco bosses ordered their workers to stop using their digital attendance tracker, and instead, to start writing down their hours worked on paper timesheets. They also forbade the employees to record more than 40 hours worked in a week, regardless of how many hours they actually worked. Instead of giving workers the time off they'd earned, Garibaldi's owners ordered them to tell investigators they received two days off per week and regular 30-minute breaks.

Holy Guacamole

And then there's the priest. It sounds like we're making it up – and it was even featured as a "Bluff the Listener" fabricated story on the popular NPR show Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! But an employee of Taqueria Garibaldi described the scheme while under oath. The labor department described it as "among the most shameless" attempts to intimidate workers that the investigators had ever seen.

The so-called priest showed up one day to "take confession" from the embattled employees at Taqueria Garibaldi. Perhaps a red flag should have a been that this priest wasn't particularly interested in sins like adultery, violence, or covetousness. In fact, he didn't really ask any of his confessors about their personal lives at all. He mainly peppered the employees with questions about their work. Were they happy? Did they harbor ill will toward Taqueria Garibaldi or its owners? Had they ever been late or stolen from work? Had they spoken to investigators about any of their concerns?

In sum, the priest asked questions that might elicit answers that could be used against the employees by their employers, the owners and operators of Taqueria Garibaldi – who were also, incidentally, the priest's employers. The pretend priest had been hired to come in and essentially collect material for blackmail that could be used as grounds to fire, report, or even deport employees who didn't go along with the owners' scheme to skim their wages.

[Un]Fair Labor Standards

Here's the thing about being an employer: you have to pay your employees. It's a big deal, big enough that our federal government and each state has sets of laws making sure that employers pay out. Take the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), for instance. Under this act, an employer is legally required to provide overtime pay for any hours worked over the standard 40 hours per week, and that overtime rate must be at least 1.5 times the employee's regular rate (what you might know as "time-and-a-half"). The FLSA also requires employers to record accurate hours worked and employee wages accurately. But it seems Taqueria Garibaldi felt it should not have to adhere to these well-known standards.

Retaliation is also a big no-no in labor law. The subject of retaliation against employees who complained about Taqueria Garibaldi's violation of labor laws was a consistent theme in the DOL's complaints and later court cases. For example, the taqueria management fired employee Maria Parra on suspicion of filing the original complaint with the DOL.

San Francisco Solicitor of Labor Marc Pilotin commented, "The U.S. Department of Labor and its Solicitor's Office will not tolerate workplace retaliation and will act swiftly to make clear that immigration status has no bearing on workers' rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act."

Payback's a Snitch

Fortunately, the taco bosses didn't get away with their sins. A court recently ordered Taqueria Garibaldi and its owners to pay $140,000 in back wages and damages to 35 employees, as well as $5,000 in civil money penalties due to the willful nature of the chain's violations. In addition to the monetary penalties, the DOL also ordered the employer to not violate the Fair Labor Standards Act in the future. 

To be fair, you might be thinking that these penalties are rather lenient, given the long history of egregious theft and wrongdoing by Taqueria Garibaldi. But it's not necessarily the case that the taco shop owners got off lightly — or at least not any more lightly than federal law calls for. Under the FLSA, the Secretary of Labor "may bring suit for back wages and an equal amount as liquidated damages." The taqueria employees were owed $70,000 in back pay. The taqueria was ordered to pay all that back, plus another $70,000 in liquidated damages (basically, to make it up to the employees for withholding their wages in the first place). 

And regarding the additional civil penalties, according to the DOL, "[e]mployers who willfully or repeatedly violate the minimum wage or overtime pay requirements are subject to a civil money penalty of up to $1,000 for each such violation." Depending on the number of violations, the $5,000 of civil penalties imposed on the taqueria is plausibly consistent with labor law. It's also possible that DOL negotiated the original amount down from a larger fine.

Generally, the officials bringing suit look at a company's financials before imposing a fine. So even if you think Taqueria Garibaldi got off easy, we can only assume that the solicitor investigated, and felt the fines imposed were adequate given the employers' financials. Lastly, given the explicit warning by DOL against any such future wrongdoing, it is safe to assume that if the taqueria violates the FLSA again, the Feds will come down on them harder — and safe to assume that no "Hail Marys" will save them. 

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