The federal Department of Labor is forcing a Roxboro restaurant owner to pay $70,000 to a former cook whose immigration status he had investigated after she complained she wasn’t being paid properly.
Giovanni Scotti D’Abbusco no longer owns his downtown eatery, Vesuvio’s, and has filed for bankruptcy. He also agreed not to threaten or intimidate any future employees who exercise their rights to be paid what they are legally owed. The same requirement applies to La Piazza Italian Restaurant, the company that now owns the restaurant.
Miriam Martinez Solais, a Mexican native who came to the U.S. illegally in 2007, was arrested by local police after a private investigator hired by Scotti D’Abbusco determined she had submitted a fraudulent Social Security card while working for Scotti D’Abbusco. Police and prosecutors said she should pay back all the wages she had been paid because she didn’t have the right to work in this country.
The labor settlement, filed in federal court this month, closes a year-long battle that brought to the forefront complex legal and policy issues. The News & Observer first reported on Solais’ case and the federal labor investigation in December.
Solais has no legal right to work in America, but regardless of her immigration status, federal labor laws say employers must pay workers what they are owed. And if a worker complains that she isn’t being paid properly, the employer is prohibited from retaliating against the worker.
No admissions from owner
Federal labor officials determined that Scotti D’Abbusco’s role in having Solais investigated and arrested by Roxboro police amounted to retaliation. Federal officials allege he recruited immigrant workers and intentionally paid them less because their status would make them fearful of complaining.
“The Department of Labor can’t allow employers to take advantage of vulnerable workers,” said Stanley E. Keen, Department of Labor regional solicitor who oversaw the case against Scotti D’Abbusco. “The most vulnerable workers now are those who have language or barrier issues.”
Though Solais is in the country illegally, she is still entitled to the same protections under federal labor laws as those with permission to work in the United States.
Scotti D’Abbusco collected Solais’ documentation for employment, but he did not verify its authenticity.
Denise Cline, an attorney for Scotti D’Abbusco, said litigation expenses drove Scotti D’Abbusco into bankruptcy. She maintains that the claims brought by Solais and the Department of Labor were baseless.
“The number in the settlement is Monopoly money,” said Cline. “The labor department basically had to justify the resources they put into this.”
In the settlement, Scotti D’Abbusco does not admit to federal labor officials’ claims that he retaliated against Solais for complaining about money she says she was owed.
She can stay
Solais complained to state labor officials in July 2014 that her boss had not paid her minimum wage for regular hours or time and a half when she worked more than 40 hours a week. State officials told her that the complaint should handled by federal officials.
Solais hired a lawyer to sue for the wages she said she was owed. But after the attorney asked Scotti D’Abbusco to settle the case for $164,000, Scotti D’Abbusco hired a private investigator to look into Solais.
When the investigator learned that Solais had provided a fraudulent Social Security card to the restaurant, he reported her to Roxboro police. She was charged with identity fraud for using someone else’s Social Security number as well as several charges of obtaining property by false pretenses: paychecks the police said she had no right to collect because she came to the country illegally and fraudulently obtained employment.
In May, Solais pleaded guilty to several misdemeanor larceny charges and was put on probation for two years. Federal labor officials have helped Solais secure a visa that protects her against deportation.
A federal judge authorized a $70,000 judgment against Scotti D’Abbusco, which labor officials will direct to Solais to recoup the money she has spent defending her criminal charges. The new owners of the restaurant must pay her $7,000 by Nov. 1.
Scotti D’Abbusco continues to work for the new owners as a manager, labor officials said.
But the civil lawsuit filed by Solais to collect wages she says she is owed is on hold because Scotti D’Abbusco has sought bankruptcy protection against those seeking to collect money from him.
Federal officials said in an interview that they want to ensure any employees at the restaurant know their labor rights and are not afraid to assert them.
“Retaliation can have a chilling effect on workers who are trying to assert their rights,” said Kristin Murphy, a labor department solicitor who helped negotiate the settlement. “This was more than just making Ms. Solais whole. It’s for workers now and in the future.”
Locke: 919-829-8927 or @MandyLockeNews