Men accuse owner of cheating them on unpaid wages

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Four former employees are suing the owner of a McDonald's restaurant chain in Sonoma County, accusing him of cheating workers on their wages, firing some who took legal action and trying to coerce others into silence.

The workers claim DCT Inc. and owner Robert Mendes fired three of them in January because they had sued him three months earlier over unpaid wages. They say Mendes and his restaurant chain took advantage of Spanish-speaking immigrants who have little formal education and are often afraid to report workplace problems.

A hearing will be held March 1 in Sonoma County Superior Court.

"It was unjust what they are doing with us, and everyone is afraid to speak up," said Alfredo Guerra, 30, one of the workers who said he was fired.

Mendes released a statement last week saying the workers' allegations regarding unlawful treatment of employees or unfair labor practices are "false and completely without merit.

"As a minority employer and a member of the Hispanic community, I value my employees and the contributions they make to my business," Mendes said in his statement. "Once the facts are presented in a court of law, I am confident these allegations will be proven false and we will be fully vindicated."

Mendes declined to be interviewed.

Allegations of unpaid wages are a common complaint among Sonoma County's low-wage immigrant community. Employers argue that labor law is complex and employers can easily make inadvertent errors.

The former McDonald's workers first took their complaints about DCT and owner Mendes to the California Rural Legal Assistance office in Santa Rosa, which referred them to the San Francisco law firm of Talamantes, Villegas and Carrera. The firm represents low-wage workers in employment disputes.

DCT Inc. in Santa Rosa operates at least seven McDonald's restaurants in Sonoma County, according to the four workers' complaint filed in September. The Talamantes firm is seeking class-action status for the case, so they can represent all of DCT's workers, which they claim number more than 90.

The Mendes case was filed by four Latino residents of Santa Rosa who worked for Mendes for two to six years at his McDonald's restaurants in west Santa Rosa and in Windsor, their complaint says. They worked as cooks, maintenance workers, cashiers, kitchen help and drive-through workers, earning $6.75 to $8.90 per hour.

They contend they were not paid for all the hours they worked, did not receive regular rest breaks and were not reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses. They said managers sometimes altered the electronic time cards. They said they tried to speak to supervisors about the problems, without results.

"I feel like they're making a mockery of us. They think we can't do anything because people are afraid," said Manuel Garcia, 25, who is a plaintiff along with his brother, Gustavo Garcia, 24. The fourth plaintiff, Oliva Jimenez Herrera, quit her job in early 2005 to care for her young children.

After the four workers filed their lawsuit, restaurant managers offered other employees a check for what they said was overdue wages and penalties, in exchange for the employees' signature on a three-page, single-spaced document that waived their rights to join the class-action suit, the plaintiffs claim in court records. They said employees were afraid not to sign, even though some did not know what the document said.

DCT said managers conducted a good-faith investigation to see if any employees were owed money for inadvertent errors and sought to make those employees whole, according to court documents. It said restaurant managers regularly verified hours, to make sure records and payments were accurate.

DCT dismissed Guerra and the Garcia brothers early this year, telling them in a letter that their Social Security numbers could not be verified and they could not work until they provided authorization to work in the United States. The Mexican-born workers said they believe they were fired because they had sued the company three months earlier.

The workers' attorney, Karen Carrera, said the three men gave Mendes their Social Security numbers when he hired them years earlier. If there was a problem with the numbers, Mendes should have let the men work it out with the Social Security Administration, she said. It is not a reason to fire someone, she said.

"These Latino workers were fired based on immigration status, which is wholly irrelevant in wage and hour law," said Carrera's co-counsel Mark Talamantes. "It is hardly a coincidence this issue surfaced now."

The three workers said their goal is to get the pay due them and others and to get back to work.

"I just want to have a clean record, so people know I'm a hard worker," said Gustavo Garcia.

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