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Feds charge owner of Somerville breakfast place threatened to have employee's family killed in overtime dispute, cajoled other workers to lie to investigators

Update: Owner denies threatening anybody.

The US Department of Labor yesterday sued Sound Bites Cafe and its owner, Yasser Mirza, on charges he reacted to an employee seeking back overtime pay by threatening to have something bad happen to his family unless he called off federal investigators looking into the issue.

In the suit, filed in US District Court in Boston, the Department of Labor also accuses Mirza of trying to get other employees - at least one of whom also was seeking back overtime - to clam up when investigators contacted them.

The department is initially seeking a temporary restraining order to make Mirza leave his workers alone while the department continues its investigations into working conditions at the Ball Square eatery - and to post prominent notices about their rights, including the right to time and a half when they work more than 40 hours a week and the right to file complaints with the government. Longer term, the government is seeking punitive damages against him.

According to the suit, Fabian Zuleta, who has worked as a cook at Sound Bites since 2009, began asking Mirza in May, 2020, to pay him for all the overtime he said he had worked without getting time and a half - some 20 hours of overtime a week for nearly three years, for which he was only paid his regular salary of $17 an hour. Mirza refused, the feds say.

On several other occasions (including one incident that occurred in front of customers) Defendant Mirza responded to Zuleta’s oral inquiries about overtime pay by berating Zuleta, cursing at Zuleta, and telling Zuleta to get out of the restaurant.

In January, 2021, Zuleta sued in state court. In response, the Labor Department charges, Mirza not only refused to pay him for the owed overtime, but retaliated by reducing Zuleta's hours, assigning him to tasks such as plumbing repairs and bathroom cleaning and "regularly threatening to report Zuleta to the police or other law enforcement."

In May, Zuleta filed a complaint with the Labor Department's Wage and Hours Division. That made Mirza step up his intimidation, the suit alleges:

Mirza urged Zuleta to make the government investigation go away and promised there would be consequences if he did not - Mirza illustrated the point by stating that Mirza had a relative who was a “killer” and suggested that it was possible to pay people to harm or kill Zuleta’s family members.

At the same time, Mirza told his other workers to lie to Labor investigators, the lawsuit charges:

Defendants instructed employees to tell government investigators that Defendants paid employees on a salary as opposed to hourly basis, that Defendants paid their employees required overtime premiums, and that Defendant Mirza was a good boss who did not abuse employees. ...

Defendant Mirza has stated to employees that there would be consequences, including termination, for employees who did not follow these instructions.

The feds say Mirza agreed to pay Zuleta back overtime to settle the state lawsuit in late 2021, but that didn't do anything about the Labor Department investigation, so Mirza alleged tried another route to persuade Zuleta to get the feds off his back:

In late 2021 and early 2022, Zuleta received a number of phone calls from private or unknown numbers in which callers identified themselves as a police officer or other law enforcement officer, and stated that Zuleta should "get rid of the case" or something bad would happen to Zuleta or his family. These phone calls overlapped in time with Zuleta settling his private state lawsuit with Defendants (and collecting back wages pursuant to that settlement), as well as the time period when Zuleta was continuing to assist the Wage and Hour Division’s ongoing investigation of Defendants. Zuleta reported the threatening calls to the Wage and Hour Division in late February 2022, a couple of weeks after receiving the last such call. As a result of Defendant Mirza’s actions, Zuleta fears not only that Zuleta is in imminent danger of being fired, but also fears for Zuleta’s own physical safety as well as that of Zuleta’s family.

Earlier:
Breakfast wars in Somerville.

Neighborhoods: 

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Comments

3 years of OT is gonna be like over $20,000.

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That's a lot of pancakes!

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get a reputation for wage theft. But drama seems to follow Mirza around.

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is no prize either. Unlike his beloved parents.

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I keep getting “too many redirects” errors when I try to fetch the 2nd page. Anyone else have any luck?

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Same here, and I was on the edge of my seat. I had vague knowledge of the rivalry but didn't realize Moccia dragged him into an alley and beat the shit out of him after claiming his relatives were responsible for 9/11.

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I was on the edge of my seat too!

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oh jeez, thank you for the working link, the truth on page two of what happened in their fight is so completely differently than what he claims on page one

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and is quite sickening to see him come on to a table of tufts female undergrads. I've seen it multiple times...

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The drama never ceases in the Breakfast War Zone.

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at its finest. The moral of this play is: if you find yourself eating breakfast in Ball Square, and someone mentions that the proprietor of the place next door has mysteriously disappeared, avoid the sausages.

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This guy's worse than Seinfeld's "Soup Nazi".

I started going to the place next door with a nearly identical menu, but that owner's a hardcore Trumper, so now I just go to the coffee shop across the street.

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The menu is identical bc the Trumper was at war with Soundbites. Made a competing business. Stole their menu and stole their cook

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owner tells it differently. Read the BoMag piece I cited in my earlier post above.

I personally don't care who's right: both owners strike me as awful people.

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The menu is one thing, but saying he "stole" the cook makes it sound like you regard him as property. I presume he made the cook an offer of employment that the cook preferred over the one he had at Soundbites, and he took it. Dude's not an indentured servant.

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Is the place in the little old fashioned diner still open? Kelly's?

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closes at 2pm every day. That's where I go when I'm in the neighborhood, never mind the famous potatoes at the Battling Bickersons' two places.

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I'm not sure what precisely those would be, but something in the assault and witness tampering spaces...

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… was always my favorite for breakfast in Ball Square, Somerville.
http://www.kellysdiner.net/

Let the others have their food fight.

My greatest moment in Kelly's Diner was when one of the lyrics of the John Prine song “Middle Man” came true for me.
“I was sitting in a diner with a girl named Flo
She wouldn't say yes, but she couldn't say no”

Actually, Flo was the waitress. Every diner should have a waitress named Flo.

Middle Man
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsVRL6QH828

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I love Kelly's

The concept of standing on a line to eat breakfast/ brunch is something that's completely eluded me

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Kiss my grits!

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would be to give the business to the employees.

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…. for worker exploitation but this guy really takes the cake!

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...now can you go after the really big exploiters with the same vigor?

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years of budget cuts and "trimming the fat" means they simply do not have the staff resources to go after the big guys. Megacorporations and Billionaires can afford lawyers to drag things out, take every request for records to a judge, give regulators the run around, etc. Add a year-to-year approach to reporting "success" and blowing 5 years digging into amazon's shit makes it look like your staff aren't doing anything, leading to more fat trimming.

Both agencies have pivoted to smaller, winnable cases as a result.

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Getting booted out as you were not finished eating, never mind finishing your coffee made the diner experience at Sound Bites unpleasant despite the food.

Plus the name always bothered me.
Too dumb.

I really miss Dolly's for late night.

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My memory is getting fuzzy (or maybe I was less than sober those late nights), but wasn't there a late night place near Davis called Kay & Chip's?

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Perhaps because of family succession or an ownership change, Kay & Chips became Dolly's, with little or no change to the restaurant operation. Tenoch currently occupies that space.

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Sometimes known as "Dolly's at Kay & Chip's".

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