FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 7, 2023
After years waiting for justice, restaurant worker’s wage theft case further languishing
OAKLAND, CA – A former employee of popular San Pablo taco truck, Los Grullenses, had been waiting five years to get a hearing before the California Labor Commissioner’s Office to try to finally hold his employer accountable for alleged unpaid wages and denied breaks. But the day before the hearing, Los Grullenses’s owner filed for bankruptcy, sending the worker’s wage theft case into procedural limbo that could take years to resolve.
Alexander Mazariegos alleges that Los Grullenses’s owners denied him any overtime pay and breaks he was due for the 13 years he devoted to the company as the restaurant’s sole cook, working grueling 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.
“I would sweat for hours while preparing the food for the food truck, and I’d be so hungry because I couldn’t eat at work since it was so busy,” said Mazariegos. “Sometimes I’d be at home finally eating dinner at six or seven at night when they’d call me saying they needed me back in the kitchen to bring them more rice.”
Mazariegos filed his claim for more than $300,000 in owed wages and penalties back in September 2018, feeling hopeful he’d one day be paid the money he believes he is owed. In October 2022, the Labor Commissioner ruled in favor of Mazariegos for the full amount, but it then had to vacate his award due to a clerical error it had made in serving notice to the employer. This crushing turn of events took Mazariegos’s case back to square one.
After an extended delay, having a hearing start in May but then rescheduled, the Labor Commissioner at long last set the final hearing date for August 2023, nearly five years after Mazariegos’s initial filing. However, this further delay gave Los Grullenses’s owner time and an opportunity to file for bankruptcy less than 24 hours before the hearing was set to begin. It is now unclear when, or if, Mazariegos will have his case heard.
“It felt like a slap in the face, like they were messing with me. I felt so sad because I thought I’d finally be able to move on with my life after so many years. It made my heart sink and made me feel really depressed,” said Mazariegos.
The situation fits into an unfortunately broader problem facing California workers who seek to recover stolen wages through the Labor Commissioner’s Office, the state agency tasked with enforcing California’s labor laws. For years, the agency has suffered delays in handling claims due to staff shortages and an increase in claims during the pandemic. Advocates say these years-long delays allow unscrupulous employers to continue cheating workers, and they urge California legislators and the governor to assist the agency by making agency positions more appealing and helping with staffing shortages.
“The delays encourage employers to continue exploiting their workers,” said Veronica Chavez, who directs the workers’ rights legal practice at Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland. “And, a worker’s chance of recovering any wages owed to them diminishes the longer it takes to hear a case. We understand that the Labor Commissioner is severely understaffed and under-resourced. The governor and legislators can help by providing higher compensation for agency positions, which will likely help fill the staggering vacancies, thereby helping workers see justice sooner.”
“I think the more time that passed, the more obstacles that came up to resolving the case,” said Mazariegos. “The delays also damaged my mental health since I’ve been thinking about this case for years. I still have nightmares about being back in that kitchen with all the stress and anxiety it caused me.”
Mazariegos’s suit also claims that the restaurant failed to keep accurate time and pay records or provide accurate wage statements, and that it denied him paid sick leave he was entitled to. Yet, despite having diligently pursued his case through the Labor Commissioner’s Office, Mazariegos fears that any outcome to his years of waiting is now beyond reach.
Centro Legal de la Raza is representing Mazariegos in his case.