Money arrives for unpaid former Petaluma Subway employees, but no legal action yet

A GoFundMe set up for the teens profiled in the original Press Democrat article has raised thousands of dollars.|

Three weeks after The Press Democrat profiled a Subway franchise owner alleged to have withheld wages from local employees, the sandwich shops remain open for business. But new developments offer some good news for the victims.

An attorney in the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office said his agency has begun to explore the allegations. A GoFundMe account has raised enough money to compensate the three teenage girls profiled in the original article. And additional workers have come forward with similar stories of wage theft and poor working conditions at six or more Subway shops owned by John Meza of Brentwood.

The DA’s office is “in the early stages of looking into this, and in determining whether another agency (e.g., the CA Dept. of Industrial Relations or a local law enforcement agency) is already conducting an investigation into this matter,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Matthew Cheever wrote in an email.

DA considering new unit focused on wage theft

Cheever declined to say anything further regarding Meza and his companies, Crave Brands LLC and MZS Enterprises LLC. But he added that District Attorney Carla Rodriguez is considering creation of a Wage Theft Unit within her office’s Environmental and Consumer Law Division, to investigate and prosecute uncompensated work.

The DA will be dedicating a 1-800 number for victims of wage theft to call and report crimes, Cheever added.

Attempts to reach Meza for this story, as well as previous stories, were unsuccessful. Mike Ayesh, identified by employees as the company’s payroll manager and primary contact, did not answer texts. Representatives of Subway, a global brand with 37,000 restaurants, did not respond to a request for comment sent to their media email account.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Industrial Relations has acknowledged receiving a formal complaint from each of the girls interviewed for The Press Democrat’s initial story — Alessandra Chavez, Lorenza Tapia and Yanelli Vargas, each of whom attends San Antonio High School in Petaluma. All three are waiting to be scheduled for settlement conferences.

According to the department’s website, those conferences will be conducted by a deputy labor commissioner, who works with employer and employee to resolve the wage claim. If the meeting doesn’t result in a settlement agreement, the claim will be scheduled for a hearing before an officer of the California Labor Commissioner.

GoFundMe raises thousands of dollars

The process can sometimes take months. But Vargas, Tapia and Chavez will not be bearing the brunt financially. Eric Smith, the San Antonio High teacher who first discovered the pattern of wage theft among his students, created a GoFundMe on March 17 to help them.

The goal of the fund was $3,900. Within a few days, it had raised $4,380, thanks largely to a $3,000 donation by William Rigsbee of Occidental.

“As I read (the article), I got angrier and angrier,” said Rigsbee, a retired stockbroker who has never met the three students. “I thought, ‘This is not right. It’s just not right.’”

Rigsbee would also like to see Meza held accountable.

“I certainly hope he would get his comeuppance,” he said.

Smith was planning to deliver checks to the students Tuesday, following a two-week spring break.

More alleged victims come forward

In the meantime, the teacher said, he has heard from two students at Casa Grande High School in Petaluma who say they, too, were stiffed out of wages. And a fourth San Antonio student deposited Subway checks at his credit union this month, only to see them bounce and the money deducted.

“He is going in today to see if there is a check for him, but will not be working his shift,” Smith said Monday.

The emergence of other alleged victims is hardly a surprise. Tapia, Chavez and Vargas said they were part of a group chat, devoted to complaints about overdue wages, that included as many as 10 aggrieved workers. Tapia noted that all five employees at the Subway shop in the St. Francis Shopping Center in Santa Rosa quit simultaneously after getting fed up.

One of those employees, it turns out, was Edgar Mora. He was among several former Subway employees who contacted The Press Democrat in the wake of the first report.

“Everything they said was just a bunch of empty promises with no fulfillment,” Mora said. “That’s why we had enough and just all left together.”

Ein Hill (his first name is pronounced like Ian), 20, was employed at the Subway on Highway 116 in Cotati for just under three months. That shop also is owned by Crave Brands and MZS Enterprises.

“He signed up for direct deposit, and it would just bounce,” said his stepmother, who asked that her name remain private because she has an active restraining order against a former domestic abuser. “His first check, the owner used (the online app) Zelle, and it went through. The next two just bounced. He sent a replacement check for one, and that bounced, too. He still has not been paid for two of the three checks.”

All told, the stepmom said, Meza owes Hill more than $3,000.

As with other employees, the fast-food restaurant shorted him overtime pay and tips, deducted lunch periods from his timecard but didn’t actually allow him to break for meals, and offered him $50 to staff a location in Windsor when it was short-handed, only to renege on the bonus money.

Hill repeatedly attempted to work out the problem through Mike Ayesh.

“He’d be blaming it on the owner,” his stepmother said. “He’d say, ‘I’ll contact him and get back to you.’ It was constant cat and mouse.”

In 2011, Meza was sentenced in Contra Costa County Superior Court to 120 days in jail and $163,000 in fines for two felony counts related to tax evasion. He and his wife, Jessica, were accused of failing to report $800,000 in income, and opening a bank account using fake Social Security numbers to hide earnings. As recently as November, the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration filed an extension for a tax lien of $226,000 against John Meza.

It’s unclear how many Subway franchises he currently owns, but they go beyond Sonoma County.

Alyssa Klemm, now 20, worked at the Subway at Sunvalley Shopping Center in Concord last year. Klemm said she worked at the mall for three or four months, and that conditions were harsh. The restaurant was understaffed. Sometimes she’d be scheduled to clock out at 4 p.m., but wouldn’t get off until 6; some of the overtime earnings never arrived.

“The restroom in the Subway would never work,” Klemm said. “You had to leave the store and use another restroom in the mall.”

She has yet to receive her final paycheck. She believes she is owed about $800.

In reaching out to The Press Democrat, Klemm’s court-appointed advocate, Tracy Yong, emailed images from checks the younger woman had received from her Subway employer. The payments were from Crave Brands and MZS Enterprises.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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