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A Case Involving the Exploitation of Undocumented Workers in New Haven Draws Attention to the State's Restaurants

Gregory B. Hladky

February 07, 2011

A family of Ecuadorian immigrants is rescued from what they claim was virtual servitude at a New Haven bakery. The owner of Mexican restaurants in Southbury and Prospect pleads guilty to hiring undocumented workers as cooks. A multimillion-dollar chain of Dunkin’ Donut shops along the shoreline is sold after its founder goes to prison for recruiting illegal foreign employees.

According to labor lawyers and immigrant-rights activists, Connecticut’s restaurant and food service industry routinely hires undocumented immigrant workers to wash dishes, clean floors, cook, bake and wait tables. The jobs often involve low pay, long hours and tough working conditions.

And if these workers complain or ask for more money or decent benefits, they can find themselves booted out the door or threatened with deportation as “illegal aliens,” says Sheila Hayre, a lawyer with the New Haven Legal Assistance Association.

“I am shocked at how common it is, how rampant it is,” Hayre says.

Peter Goselin, a Hartford labor lawyer, agrees. “There’s no question that undocumented immigrants are working in many Connecticut restaurants,” he says. “It’s a pretty common feature of the restaurant business in Connecticut.”

We’re not talking just about low-rent pizza places and hamburger joints. “Most nice restaurants in Connecticut have undocumented workers doing crappy jobs,” Goselin says.

This winter, employees of two upscale New Haven restaurants (Cafe Goodfellas and Downtown at the Taft) staged demonstrations to protest unfair wages. John Lugo, an activist who helped organize the protests, says several of those involved are undocumented workers.

“The employers are claiming they didn’t know they were undocumented workers,” says Goselin, who is representing some of those employees.

Gennaro Iannacone, owner of Goodfellas, declined to comment. The owners of Downtown at the Taft, who are apparently planning to reopen the restaurant under a new name, couldn’t be reached for comment.

“They know from the beginning these workers were undocumented,” says Lugo, who is with the advocacy group Unidad Latina en Accion. “But when you ask for these people’s rights, [the owners] say, ‘They are illegal, I don’t have to pay them.’“

The lack of a consistent and comprehensive federal policy on people who enter the United States without the required visas or work permits has become a seemingly insoluble political nightmare for the White House, Congress, federal, state and local officials. Despite President Barack Obama’s promises to change the course of federal immigration policy, deportations have actually increased since his administration took office two years ago.

A new report by the Pew Hispanic Center estimated the number of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. last year at 11.2 million, about the same as in 2009. The nonpartisan research group’s study also found that the number of undocumented employees in the American workforce also remained steady at about 8 million despite the recession, high unemployment and state crackdowns.

Connecticut’s illegal-immigration issues are mild compared to states like Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The Pew report estimated Connecticut was home to about 120,000 undocumented immigrants in 2010; but that represents a big increase from the approximately 75,000 illegal immigrants who were believed to be here a decade ago.

Their presence has produced its share of controversy here, from New Haven’s 2007 decision to offer city identification cards to undocumented immigrants to the Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton’s proposals to use state and local police to cooperate with federal agents in rounding up undocumented immigrants. Raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents several years ago sparked angry protests in some cities.

Most of the undocumented immigrants in Connecticut are here for the work, whether it’s in construction or landscaping or any of the other businesses willing to hire them. Experts food service is one area where they find low-wage jobs most available, and where they often find themselves exploited. “The vast majority of them work in the food industry,” says Hayre.

Goselin says their situations cover a broad spectrum, from horrific conditions that may even include sexual abuse, to employers who treat undocumented workers just as they treat American-born employees.

The plight of those six Ecuadorians who were working at Rocco’s Bakery on Ferry Street in New Haven is an example of how bad things can get, according to Hayre.

The bakery’s owner, Antonio DiBenedetto of North Branford, pleaded guilty last month to one count of unlawful employment of aliens and now faces a potential fine of up to $250,000 and up to five years in prison. His lawyer, Hugh F. Keefe, insists that DiBenedetto was only trying to help these immigrants by providing them with work and a place to live.

The Ecuadorians have filed a civil suit accusing DiBenedetto and his two sons of sexual and verbal abuse of the women in the family, of threatening them with deportation if they complained about long hours and unfairly low pay. “They were terrified,” Hayre says. “It was just terrible treatment.”

Hayre says this case is unusual because the immigrants involved decided to seek help from local activists, lawyers and federal officials. “Very, very few ever come forward,” she says, explaining most undocumented immigrants fear that if they make an official complaint about an employer violating state and federal labor laws, they will be deported no matter what happens to the employer.

In the Rocco Bakery case, ICE has granted several members of the Ecuadorian family temporary work permits that will allow them to stay in U.S., at least for now.

Lugo acknowledges that not all restaurants hiring undocumented workers are trying to exploit them. “I know some owners who are pretty decent,” he says.

Treating undocumented immigrants decently won’t protect an employer if the feds decide to make an example of him, says Diane Polan, an immigration lawyer. She represented Andrew Adames, an Oxford resident who was prosecuted in 2009 for hiring illegal workers at his chain of Mexican restaurants. She insists Adames never abused his employees, paid them fairly and treated them well.

Polan believes ICE agents went after Adames to make him “the Connecticut poster boy for the federal government’s ... misguided strategy” for solving the problem of undocumented workers. She says the idea was, “If you go and prosecute restaurants, that will solve the problem.”

“How does that help the problem,” Polan asks, “making my client into a convicted felon?” Adames pleaded guilty, paid ICE $150,000, and was given 150 hours of community service.

People in Connecticut’s restaurant and food service industry insist that hiring undocumented workers just isn’t a big deal in this state. Several of the experts attending a recent Farm-To-Chef Annual Meeting in Old Saybrook last month claimed they’d never encountered illegal workers at restaurants where they’d been employed.

John Turenne, a former chef at Yale University who is now with Sustainable Food Systems, says larger food service institutions and companies won’t employ undocumented workers because of the potential for legal problems. “I think they’re out there in smaller businesses,” he argues. “If there was a crackdown, it’s the little guy who would be in trouble.”

Hayre believes it’s far more widespread. She recalls a time a few years ago when a rumor was spread that ICE agents were planning to raid lots of restaurants in New Haven. Hayre and some friends happened to be going out to dinner that night, and at two of the city’s top restaurants, they were told the kitchens had been shut down. Virtually everyone had fled in fear.

“It really brought home for me how hidden these workers are,” she says, “and how totally dependent we are on them.”

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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