US Department of Labor drops charges against Center County 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 has dropped a federal lawsuit against a Mexican restaurant chain in Center County, according to court documents.

Attorneys for the Department of Labor and Lupita’s Authentic Mexican Food jointly filed for voluntary dismissal after both parties agreed to a stipulated injunction to resolve alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner ordered the case closed in early September.

The lawsuit filed in July arose out of an investigation opened a month earlier by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division into allegations that Lupita and her landlord forced employees to work to pay for the cost of their transportation to the United States , circumvented overtime wage laws and illegally seized tips .

Lupita’s, owner Emilio Lopez and his wife, Maria Guadalupe Rojas, were charged with retaliating against employees who complained or threatened to quit due to long hours without proper pay at the three county locations. center of the restaurant.

A response filed by Lupita’s lawyer, Faith Lucchesi, before the dismissal, however, described the situation as a family matter related to loaned money that had little to do with the business. Lopez and Rojas did not loan anyone money for the purpose of traveling to the United States to work at Lupita, Lucchesi wrote.

Lopez’s sister and ex-boyfriend’s nephew traveled to the United States on their own using the money Lopez sent her to overcome financial difficulties in Mexico, Lucchesi wrote. According to the record, when the sister and nephew arrived, they had no assets, and Lopez and Rojas provided them with food, shelter, and other necessities.

No jobs were available for either of Lupita’s locations when they arrived, although they later worked in the restaurants “out of a desire to help the family and not out of an existing obligation to repay the money. that Lopez had sent to her sister, Lucchesi wrote.

The Labor Department lawsuit alleged that Lupita withheld wages for rent and that Lopez told an employee he owed thousands of dollars more than previously reported.

But Lucchesi wrote in the response that the nephew regularly borrowed and repaid money to Lopez. When the nephew terminated his employment, Lopez said the most recent loan was due in accordance with their agreement and past practices. The nephew reportedly agreed that Lopez could keep his last paycheck to cover the debt balance.

Lupita also denied that Lopez and Rojas retaliated against employees, threatened to fire some employees from housing provided, withheld compensation from employees who complained, or dissuaded employees from engaging in activities protected by law. on fair labor standards.

Under the injunction, Lupita’s will not retaliate, discriminate against, or take adverse action against any current or former employee for filing a complaint, testifying in a proceeding, or otherwise. assert their protected labor rights. Lupita is also required to inform employees that they will not be subject to retaliation for asserting their rights under the FLSA, including speaking to Department of Labor investigators.

The agreement does not resolve claims the Department of Labor may have for back wages, damages and other relief.

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