Department of Labor investigates local Mexican restaurant

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Authentic Mexican Food at Lupita in Ferguson Township is one of three restaurants in Center County. Photo by Annie Kubiak | forward state

The US Department of Labor is investigating a local chain of Mexican restaurants for allegations that it forced employees to work to pay for the cost of their transportation to the United States, circumvented overtime wage laws and illegally seized tips, according to a federal lawsuit filed on Friday.

Lupita’s Authentic Mexican Food and its owners, Emilio Lopez Ramirez and Maria Guadalupe Rojas Orozco, are accused in the Labor Department lawsuit of retaliating against employees who complained or threatened to quit due to poor working conditions work in the restaurant’s three Center County establishments.

The investigation began in June and is ongoing.

Attempts to reach the owners for comment by phone and email were unsuccessful. Lupita’s opened its first restaurant in 2019 in Ferguson Township and later established locations in Milesburg and downtown State College.

The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division investigation reportedly found that Lupita transported at least three out-of-country employees to work in the United States, then forced them to work in restaurants to pay the cost. According to the lawsuit, these employees were housed “in a rural area with no access to public transportation” and depended on restaurants for transportation.

Lupita “threatened to fire some employees from destitute employer-provided housing when employees attempted to quit due to poor working conditions, including long hours without proper overtime pay,” wrote l Department of Labor attorney Deirdre Aaron.

When an employee demanded to be paid the appropriate overtime wage of one and a half times his regular rate for working more than 40 hours a week, Lupita allegedly started paying overtime but withheld the rest, saying to the employee that it was for the cost of rent. When the same employee approached Lopez Ramirez and Rojas Orozco about the amount of debt owed for transportation to the United States, they reportedly said it was now thousands of dollars more than the employee had been previously informed.

The lawsuit alleges that Lupita violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by retaliating against employees who complained, actions that Aaron said would deter employees from cooperating with the Labor Department’s investigation and assert their right to a fair wage.

The Department of Labor is seeking injunctions restraining Lupita from violating FLSA provisions and retaliating against employees who engage in protected activities. It also seeks an order to notify employees that they will not be retaliated against for asserting their rights, including going to Department of Labor officials, and punitive damages.

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