Tackle Box, a seafood restaurant located at 3245 M St., agreed Wednesday to pay three former workers more than $4,000 to resolve allegations of wage theft.
The conflict featured three workers, one who had been demanding his wages for 18 months and two who had been requesting their delayed pay for six months. After their paychecks bounced, they contacted Tackle Box and were told to try depositing the checks again. As the checks continued to bounce, the workers returned to the restaurant multiple times and were continually rebuffed in their attempts to speak with the owner.
Jose Ramirez, one of the former workers, said that he received $1,300 in bad checks.
“When they paid me in 2011, they wrote me a check and I took it to the bank, but the check bounced because the account didn’t have funds to pay all the employees,” Ramirez said through a translator. “Only those who went to the bank first received their pay.”
The agreement came after D.C. Jobs with Justice, an interest group that advocates for workers’ rights, orchestrated a demonstration at the restaurant to protest the restaurant’s failure to pay the workers.
While pleased with the conflict’s resolution, D.C. Jobs with Justice Education Coordinator Ari Schwartz criticized Tackle Box for delaying the payments.
“The reality of the situation is that … the workers should be paid their checks, their pay, on time,” Schwartz said.
After contacting D.C. Jobs with Justice in July 2012, the workers filed claims with the D.C. Department of Employment Service’s Office of Wage and Hour Compliance, which is responsible for resolving employer-employee conflicts.
The office sent two letters to Tackle Box but received no response. The claims were then forwarded to the office of D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan.
It was not until Feb. 1, after Jobs with Justice announced a protest in front of the restaurant scheduled for Feb. 6, that the wife of Tackle Box owner Jonathan Umbel contacted the workers. The two sides reached a settlement late Tuesday, in time to defuse the demonstration.
When asked about the incident, however, restaurant owner Jonathan Umbel said he was unaware of the bounced checks until last week.
“It was brought to our attention last Friday, and it was resolved today. When it was brought to our attention, we took care of it,” Umbel said. “When we got the email from the advocate group, we called the advocate group, we got in touch with the person who runs the advocate group and we settled the claim immediately.”
Schwartz disagreed with Umbel’s timeline.
“In July of 2012, all these workers made attempts to talk to Umbel, and then repeatedly over the next several months, they did the same thing and never were able to see him or speak with him,” Schwartz said.
Demonstrators did not picket in front of Tackle Box Wednesday afternoon as planned because a resolution had been reached; however, they reorganized the protest to take place at the Georgetown Waterfront and advocated for general worker solidarity instead.
University students became involved as a result of collaboration between Jobs with Justice and the Day Laborer Exchange program, an initiative sponsored by Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.
Program coordinator Sophia Sepp (SFS ’15) noted that the student body needed to be aware of labor problems in the area.
“I think it’s really important, especially for the Georgetown students and the Georgetown community, to realize that right here, a couple blocks away, there is a blatant issue of wage theft going on that our money is supporting,” Sepp said. “It’s something of a wakeup call, for Georgetown and for the employers, to raise awareness of the issue.”
Around 13 students took part in the protest, which stopped by Tackle Box to watch the workers receive their paychecks before proceeding to the Waterfront. Members of Movimiento Estudiantil [email protected] de Aztlán, the Georgetown Solidarity Committee and GU Occupy dominated the student delegation.
Zenen Jaimes Perez (SFS ’13), a member of MEChA, attended the protest.
“My parents are Mexican immigrants and they are restaurant workers as well,” Perez said. “I’m here to stand in solidarity with the workers here who have lost their wages and who are immigrants to make sure their voices are heard, just like I would want my parents’ voices to be heard.”
Perez cautioned, however, that there were still injustices to be corrected.
“Hopefully this is something that can happen more regularly, but the fact is that every year here in D.C. hundreds of workers experience wage theft,” he said.