Conflict & Justice

A good relationship gone sour

Anchor Lisa Mullins speaks with Boston Globe reporter, Jenn Abelson, about her article on the relationship between undocumented workers from Brazil and the high-profile pizza store chain they helped build. What was initially a mutually beneficial relationship ended up souring amid allegations of denied pay and exploitation.

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We received the statement below from Upper Crust following to our attempts to contact the company.

In the past we did in fact have an issue related to incorrectly managing overtime and were ordered to make a payment to current and former employees, which we did. The checks were distributed and all but a few were cashed; and those few that were returned to us were turned over to the Department of Labor. All of the checks were turned over to the journalist working on the story so she could review them. Any allegation to the contrary is untrue.

After this issue was resolved we made some business decisions, and reduced some workers hours and hired other works to fill those additional hours at the regular hourly rate. This made some employees understandably upset but it was best for the company and thus our employees � we employee about 250 people in Massachusetts. We also made some additional staffers managers because we had hired a number of new employees in various locations and needed additional help in training, scheduling and overseeing their work.

George Regan
Upper Crust Spokesman

Lisa Mullins: The people of the town of Marilac in eastern Brazil also continue to struggle. There's been only one way to escape the poverty of Marilac and that is to escape Marilac, itself. Dozens of men have done just that during the past decade. They have escaped to Boston to work for a local pizza chain called The Upper Crust. The Brazilians worked long and hard and they made enough money to send back home. Then, things turned sour. Jenn Ableson reported the story in yesterday's Boston Globe Newspaper. First of all, Jenn, how did so many people from this one rural town, Marilac, in Brazil, where you went, in fact, to report this story, end up working for the same high end pizza chain in the Boston area?

Jenn Ableson: It was mainly a word-of-mouth, passed from one villager to a next, about a few men came to Boston in 2001 and a cousin introduced one of these men to Jordan Tobins, who's the owner of The Upper Crust and just word of this opportunity spread quickly from Boston to Brazil.

Mullins: And how did things go in the beginning?

Jenn Ableson: In the beginning was a really amicable and mutually beneficial relationship. The men, it was a small shop. It was just one. They would work side by side with the owners and the managers delivering pizza. It felt like a family. It felt like their own kind of place and these workers were making wages way beyond anything they could ever dream of in their home town and then they would send home hundreds of dollars every month. Thousands of dollars over years and that would help build homes, build businesses back home, help their families in Marilac. I mean, there's some incredibly huge houses, I mean gorgeous by standards you'd see in the U.S. And, these are people who have come to Boston, worked at The Upper Crust and sent money home.

Mullins: Interesting — the name "Upper Crust" in a place that suffered severe poverty until some of these workers came here. Again, how many, in all, have come in the past 9 years?

Jenn Ableson: It's over 80, 80 men from this town and they would leave behind wives and children and fiancées and girlfriends and spend years here 'til they could come back, make enough money to have a good life back home.

Mullins: So, what happened to make things go sour? These people, we should say, are all undocumented — the people who were working there. What percent in The Upper Crust chain were undocumented workers? Do you know?

Jenn Ableson: I don't have an actual statistic but I know that, my understanding is that almost the entire kitchen and delivery staff were Brazilian and that's a majority of their work force. I mean, they have some managers and they have some Americans, often college students who work at the counters, but the vast majority of their workforce are these people who are making the pizzas, preparing the vegetables for the pizzas and delivering them around.

Mullins: OK. For awhile, it was going pretty well. And, then what transpired?

Jenn Ableson: The chain was doing really well and the owner, Jordan Tobins, just had an incredible amount of ambition and just wanted to keep growing and growing fast. And, according to many managers who worked there, they just began to cut corners particularly on labor costs. So, they wouldn't hire as many people. These employees had to keep working longer hours. Routinely it was 80, then 90, some 100 hours a week.

Mullins: Did they get paid for that?

Jenn Ableson: They would get paid…

Mullins: Overtime?

Jenn Ableson: They did not get paid overtime. So, what they would do is, some employees were just being paid in cash which is not legal in the United States and many of them would be paid 40 hours straight on a check, and then they would be paid whatever hours afterward in straight time, so not overtime. And, for a long time, the employees didn't know any better and they didn't think it was a problem. And they were happy with the set up. But, as the relationship got strained, and as the chain expanded quickly, and as the owners were, sort of, increasingly showing their wealth through plane and boats and these workers were not getting by very easily, it became more and more tense.

Mullins: And then what happened?

Jenn Ableson: There were a few breaking moments. But, eventually, the employees did a, took a really rare step for undocumented workers which was that they decided to fight back. And, they reported the chain to the U.S. Department of Labor because they felt like they were being exploited and the U.S. Department of Labor launched an investigation into the…

Mullins: On behalf of undocumented immigrants?

Jenn Ableson: On behalf of undocumented immigrants. The federal laws require that employers, regardless of their workers' status, that they be paid time and a half for any hours worked over 40. I mean, that is intended to prevent employers from trying to skimp on payroll by hiring these illegal workers. So, it doesn't matter if they're documented or undocumented. They are owed time and a half after they've worked 40 hours.

Mullins: And, do you know if they received that?

Jenn Ableson: My understanding is that they did not receive it. I mean, the Department of Labor, when they put out their investigation, it said that they, they owed more than three hundred and forty thousand dollars in back pay to the workers. More than 120 workers and the vast majority of them were the Brazilian immigrants.

Mullins: And, were they repaid?

Jenn Ableson: Many were issued checks and, but what happened is that things for many workers allegedly became much worse. Apparently, The Upper Crust demanded that workers who were receiving these checks, if they wanted to keep the money, they didn't have a job any longer. And, other allegations are that for workers who decided to stay, they would then have, they could cash the checks, but then their paychecks were deducted every week until the company recovered the entire cost of those payments.

Mullins: That's Boston Globe reporter, Jenn Ableson. The ongoing dispute between Upper Crust and some of its former employees from Brazil is the subject of a pending lawsuit and a second Labor Department investigation. The company representing Upper Crust gave us this statement. It reads, in part, �In the past, we did, in fact, have an issue related to incorrectly managing overtime and were ordered to make a payment to current and former employees which we did. The checks were distributed and all, but a few, were cashed and those few that were returned to us were turned over to the Department of Labor. Any allegation to the contrary is untrue.�