September 6, 2010

Green Café Owner Hit With $1 Million Fine for Labor Violations

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The owner of the defunct Green Café in Collegetown has been fined nearly one million dollars by the New York State Department of Labor for unfair treatment of workers at both his Ithaca establishment and a still-operating deli in New York City, the Tompkins County Workers’ Center announced Thursday.Investigations began after Ana Ottoson, a former cashier at the café, lodged a complaint against the owner, Charles B. Park. Though she received regular pay and benefits, Ottoson claimed that this was not the case for all Park’s employees. She was friends with several “backroom” workers — a largely Latino group of busboys, dishwashers and other employees working out of sight of the public — who complained that they had been repeatedly denied wages and regular days off.“I found that the guys weren’t being paid,” said Ottoson, a lifelong Ithaca resident. “Every week [Park] would say he’d pay them next week.”She said she repeatedly urged to employees to “please take a stand for yourselves,” but they continued to work, possibly out of fear of retribution from Park or a simple lack of other employment options.Finally, in November 2009, Ottoson quit her job and took the case to the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, a local advocacy group which helped her make the complaint to Department of Labor, which eventually lead to the investigations and fines.

“I couldn’t take watching my friends be taken advantage of anymore,” Ottoson said.The complaint included failure to pay overtime, failure to give days off and minimum wage violations.Pete Meyers, coordinator at the Workers’ Center, said there had long been suspicion about Green Café’s labor practices, but no one — until Ottoson — had come forward to help the Workers’ Center make the case against the café.“We received some anonymous e-mails earlier in 2009 saying things that ended up being pretty much what [Ottoson] said, but since it couldn’t be corroborated, and no one would respond to the e-mails when we replied, we didn’t do anything about it,” Meyers said in an e-mail.He expressed sympathy with the “backroom” workers, calling the term “a kind of euphemism” for a very vulnerable group of employees.“They were not from here, were of Mexican descent and had nowhere else to go. It was because of Ana Ottoson helping them that they came to us and we were able to convince the N.Y.S. Department of Labor to open an investigation,” he stated.The Department of Labor fined Park, the owner of Green Café, $623,000 for violations at his Ithaca location and $377,000 for the New York City deli, according to the Workers’ Center. Unpaid wages, interest, damages and civil penalties are all included in the fine, according to The Ithaca Journal. Park has appealed the fines and is awaiting a hearing with the Industrial Board of Appeals. He could not be reached for comment Monday night.For the moment, the former employees said they look forward to receiving their back-wages. When Ottoson first told her friends they would be compensated, several thought it was a joke, she said. However, disbelief quickly became delight.“I am so happy because everyone is going to get their pay,” said Fernando Almarez, one of the uncompensated workers. Almaraz expressed gratitude to the Workers’ Center, and especially to Ottoson for her advocacy and friendship.“[Ottoson] felt bad about how hard we worked,” he said.Ottoson, who has since found a new job at a local Borders, said she did not at first realize that her actions would have such an impact.“It was just kind of the only way I could think of to do the right thing,” she said. “But the ripple effect has showed me that it was more than just walking out of a bad job.”The 24-hour café opened in March 2009 at the corner of College Ave. and Dryden Rd. It closed its doors in April after declaring bankrupcy in February.

Original Author: Eliza LaJoie