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Upper Crust under immigration investigation

Published: October 14, 2011
Section: News


Upper Crust Pizzeria, which owns a location on Moody Street in Waltham, has come under federal scrutiny after allegations arose concerning the exploitation of its immigrant workers. According to the Boston Globe earlier this year, the Department of Labor began investigating the company again after it began to rescind the payments it was compelled to give workers after a previous lawsuit.

Testimony will be heard on the issue of reneged payments by a federal grand jury this week. The charges to be considered by the jury are still unclear, and the Department of Labor refuses to confirm or deny that any investigation is taking place. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is a subdivision of the Department of Homeland Security, have been investigating the possibility that Upper Crust Pizza exploited the illegal workers that the company had brought from abroad multiple times.

The pizza chain has had numerous suits brought against it by former employees for maltreatment of their immigrant workers, who largely originate from Marilac, an impoverished town in Brazil. It has been using under-paid illegal labor to deliver pizza and staff the kitchens of its expanding operations during the past decade. Luciano Botelho, former head kitchen manager who left earlier this summer while the investigation was in progress, was responsible for establishing connections with the village of Marilac. According to the company, he left of his own accord but Upper Crust refused to elaborate further. The workers were brought to the United States with the promise of jobs at Upper Crust, and the company seems to have some part in their emigration from Brazil, providing housing near the pizzerias.

The original lawsuit was brought by four former employees to seek compensation for underpayment during long hours; the company had not increased overtime payment when employees worked more than 40 hours. Upper Crust Pizza was compelled by the Department of Labor to pay employees $341,000. Last year another civil suit was brought by a number of former employees of the company who claimed that thousands of dollars were withheld from their paychecks so the company could regain what the Department of Labor had already made the company pay to illegal workers.

Many employees were changed from hourly to salaried staff so as to avoid overtime payment. Employees worked between 70 and 80 hours on a regular basis. According to a former manager of Upper Crust, the employees were told they would have to take a pay cut to indirectly reimburse the company for the court-awarded amount, or quit. Workers claimed that after Upper Crust had recovered its money they were fired. Managers were made to work double shifts, to avoid overtime costs to the company. Those who reported wrongdoings to government officials claimed they were mistreated by the company or terminated.

The labor allegations had reduced business last winter; according to a number of former managers, sales had dropped by 20 percent. During the investigation, boycotts by student organizations and immigration activists have taken place outside their store. Food review websites like Chowhound.com may have contributed to the drop in sales when users post news of the worker exploitation lawsuits.

The company has previously admitted mistakes in overtime payment but claims that the issues have been resolved. It denies any wrongdoing in the current allegations.