Employees of the Taqueria Garibaldi restaurants in Northern California might have thought their employer was helping them get to Heaven when it brought in a man of the cloth to hear confessions during working hours.
But instead of absolving the workers for sins like stealing or cheating on their timecards, the fake priest was reporting the transgressions to management, a con job the U.S. Department of Labor called one of the most shameless ruses it has ever seen an employer pull.
DOL said Monday that it discovered the scam while investigating the restaurants’ operator, Che Garibaldi Inc., for more garden-variety alleged infractions, such as denying overtime to workers who logged more than 40 hours a week. Investigators were also looking into reports that management had diverted funds from the restaurants’ tip pools and had threatened to retaliate against workers who reported the infractions. There were allegations that one whistleblower was fired.
They learned that management had brought in an individual it identified as a priest, explaining to employees that they could confess their sins while still on the clock. According to DOL, the fake cleric played the role eagerly, urging employees to “get the sins out” and asking them in the confidential setting of a confession if they’d ever stolen at work, showed up late for a shift or cheated their employer in any other way.
They were also asked if they had any ill intentions against Che Garibaldi, a query apparently intended to flush out would-be whistleblowers.
“Under oath, an employee of Taqueria Garibaldi explained how the restaurant offered a supposed priest to hear their workplace ‘sins’ while other employees reported that a manager falsely claimed that immigration issues would be raised by the department’s investigation,” DOL Regional Solicitor of Labor Marc Pilotin said in a statement. “This employer’s despicable attempts to retaliate against employees were intended to silence workers, obstruct an investigation and prevent the recovery of unpaid wages.”
Last month, principals of Che Garibaldi agreed to accept a consent judgment from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California—essentially, an offer to skip a trial and allow a judge to decide what’s a fair punishment for alleged violations and damages to a party.
Judge William Schubb directed Che Garibaldi’s three owner-operators—Eduardo Hernandez, Hector Manual Martinez Galindo and Alejandro Rodriguez—to pay $70,000 in back pay and another $70,000 in damages to 35 employees.
The principals were also instructed to pay $5,000 in civil penalties to DOL, and were told further violations of federal labor laws would not be tolerated.
The judgment also obliges the proprietors to install reliable time clocks at the restaurants and to refrain from altering time records.
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