Current and former workers have filed multiple labor notices against uptown eatery Santa Fe Bar and Grill, and the restaurant could become the first test case for how Alan Webber's mayoral administration will handle living wage complaints in Santa Fe.
On March 9, two current and three former employees filed claims with the state's Department of Workforce Solutions for unpaid overtime totaling $100,000. They filed the formal complaint the same day Judge David K Thomson of the First District Court ruled that the department must reopen investigations into wage theft complaints going back to 2009 that it shelved for claiming more than $10,000 or for minor administrative reasons.
"We filed them because we were never paid overtime," says Yesenia Sanchez, an employee since 2007 who says she is owed over $10,000 from Santa Fe Bar and Grill. Sanchez is a member of a worker committee she and another current employee, Maria Siliczar, formed with three former employees to petition the state for unpaid overtime over several years.
The complaint with DWS comes in addition to a charge with the National Labor Relations Board that the workers' committee filed Feb. 28 and that Sanchez signed as its representative. It alleges the restaurant retaliated against Sanchez and others for attempting to organize, including by reducing her working hours and threatening to call the police on employees for unspecified reasons.
Robert Day, the restaurant owner, says that the immigrant advocacy group Somos un Pueblo Unido, which has facilitated the workers' efforts, is unfairly targeting his business. He has not been contacted by DWS or reviewed the complaint, but says that the charge with the National Labor Relations Board was "without merit." He believes he was helping employees by offering additional working hours at their request, even if they did not earn more than their regular hourly wage, he says.
"Our position [is that] this is all revolving around a February 14 employee altercation between one of the women in this group [Sanchez] and another employee—it was sort of an aggressive dynamic conflict, and the other employee walked out and quit," says Day, who also owned the San Francisco Street Bar & Grill until 2013. He claims the majority of his nearly 20 other employees are loyal to the restaurant's management, and blames Sanchez' claims on a personal vendetta.
But Iliana Garcia, a former employee who quit in 2017 after 11 years and who is part of the committee petitioning DWS for overtime pay, says that the environment can be uncomfortable for employees who raise alarms about unpaid wages.
"It's not Yesenia who had a problem with the boss or her co-worker; what happened is that you can't say what you want because they don't listen," says Garcia in Spanish. "They say, 'This person is crazy,' they say they're a problem."
DWS spokeswoman Erin Thompson confirmed the department will next investigate the employer's records to attempt to verify the claims.
Siliczar is also planning to file a complaint on March 14 with the city over a violation of Santa Fe's living wage ordinance, according to Marcela Díaz, executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido. Since the start of this month, the city has mandated an hourly minimum wage of $11.40, an increase from $11.09 after factoring a rise in the federal Consumer Price Index for the Western United States.
Day says he is currently paying his employees at least $11.40, a fact confirmed by Díaz. She claims Day only began to abide by Santa Fe's living wage mandate because his employees started organizing, though Day denies this was a motivating factor. He acknowledges, however, that his restaurant may have been out of compliance with federal overtime laws because some employees asked to work more than 40 hours per week and agreed to do so without receiving the extra wages that are legally required.
Sanchez and Siliczar, says Díaz, "recruited others to file complaints, past workers, but [they] also started to see changes in their workplace as a result of organizing," including Siliczar seeing her pay rise to comply with Santa Fe's living wage ordinance. Nevertheless, Díaz says, Siliczar is moving forward with her complaint to the city.
Day opposed the city's efforts to set a wage in the past. In 2003, he was a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought against the city by New Mexicans for Free Enterprise to toss the living wage ordinance. The New Mexico Court of Appeals upheld the living wage in 2005. That same year, Day warned SFR the ordinance would cause "a significant market depression."
He strikes a different tone today. "Presently, I'm fine with the minimum wage, and we are complying. I won't say it's a good or bad thing, but simply it's part of our fiscal market these days."
The ordinance has been updated several times since it was first passed in 2003. Filed claims are investigated by the city attorney's office. Representatives from Somos un Pueblo Unido say that the city's process for investigating violations isn't up to par. A recent review by The Santa Fe New Mexican found that living wage complaints had increased each year since 2015. There were 16 filed last year, 14 of which were validated by the city.
In a conversation hours before his inauguration, Mayor Alan Webber said he hadn't yet discussed the investigatory process with Assistant City Attorney Zach Shandler, but was committed to making it easier to file complaints for workers whose first language isn't English.
"I think at the heart of matter is that, as the new administration, I should sit down with Somos leadership and get their suggestions," Webber told SFR. The questions his administration would consider, he said, include: "Were wages illegally withheld from workers who earned money? Is there evidence? Is there a way to establish that they were victims of theft?"