ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s a huge win for 150 people, who for years were cheated out of the money they earned while working at a popular Albuquerque restaurant.
A judge ruled the former owners of Kelly’s Brew Pub in Nob Hill created an elaborate scheme to get out of paying their employees minimum wage. “It put a lot of stress in my life, a lot of stress on me. I had just gotten out of high school,” said Andrea Varela, a former hostess and waitress at Kelly’s.
When Varela was just starting out, she saw first hand how unfair the real world can be. “It was awful. I cried. That was when I realized how bad it really was, when no one came in and they were still taking money from us,” said Varela.
Varela is one of the 150 employees who exposed an illegal operation going on behind doors for years. “They had no remorse and they just didn’t care,” said Varela.
In a class action lawsuit filed in 2016, they accused the former owners, Dennis and Janice Bonfantine, of stealing money from servers to make up for the Albuquerque minimum wage hike that went into effect in 2013.
“The scheme the employers came up with was very egregious,” said Stephanie Welch, a supervising attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.
The servers should’ve started making $3.80 an hour, plus tips. But, they say they were forced to give Kelly’s 2% of their daily sales, plus $3 for every hour they worked on the clock.
“Especially when you would look at that $3 for every hour that you worked, you knew you were paying to work somewhere and that was just an insult, an insult to everyone who worked there,” said Varela.
Varela says it was bleeding her dry, and servers always had to pay up, even if they didn’t make enough to cover the owner’s demands that day. Varela recalls a slow day when she didn’t make a lot of tips. “I was like, ‘I don’t have any cash,’ and they were like, ‘Okay, that’s fine. We’ll take it out of your check,'” said Varela.
A number of employees came forward in 2016 and filed the lawsuit with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. After a three-year court battle, a judge ruled last week that the Bonfantines did break the minimum wage law. “They spent a lot of money trying to avoid paying their workers and just do what was right,” said Welch.
The judge ruled that the Bonfantines would have to pay employees three years of back pay at the full minimum wage amount.
“The judge found that by not following the rules, that the ordinance sets out in order to have a tip pool, the employer had to pay the full minimum wage to the workers and couldn’t take advantage of the lower minimum wage for tipped workers,” said Welch.
A trial is set to happen in October to determine exactly how much the Bonfantines will need to pay the workers, but Welch expects it to be a lot. “I think it’s well over a million dollars they’re owed, that the workers are owed,” said Welch.
After years of not being able to afford rent and having to take the city bus everywhere, Varela has a new job and is back on her feet. She says she is happy to see her former bosses being held accountable. “It’s a really important win. I think it shows a lot of people justice can be served if you really go for it,” said Varela.
KRQE News 13 reached out the Bonfantine’s attorney Monday, who said they have no comment on the judge’s ruling. The couple sold the business to its current owners back in 2016.