California Taqueria Used ‘Priest’ to Intimidate Workers, Labor Department Says

An owner of a Northern California taqueria was the target of a federal wage theft investigation in November 2021 when he brought in a strange guest to talk to his employees.

Eduardo Hernandez told workers at Taqueria Garibaldi in Sacramento that the man, who claimed to be a priest, was there to hear confession and “help with mental health,” according to an account that one employee gave federal regulators.

But the employee, Maria Parra, found her interaction with the man to be more like an interrogation than a confession. Ms. Parra said that he told her he would ask her questions “to get the sins out of me.” But when the questioning began, the man “mostly had work-related questions,” she said.

“The priest asked if I had stolen anything at work, if I was late to my employment, if I did anything to harm my employer and if I had any bad intentions toward my employment,” Ms. Parra said in a sworn declaration.

Raquel Alfaro, a Labor Department investigator, testified that “multiple employees” told her they took part in confessions with the man and that “they found it odd because the priest was asking questions regarding their loyalty to the employer and to the business.”

Labor Department officials said this week that they believed the intention was to intimidate the workers and possibly to extract information from them about their interactions with investigators.

Last month, a federal judge ordered Mr. Hernandez and the other owner of Taqueria Garibaldi, which has three locations in the Sacramento area, to pay $140,000 in back pay and damages to 35 workers.

The restaurant failed to pay its hourly workers overtime and illegally paid managers with pooled tip money, the Labor Department said in a statement on Monday announcing the enforcement action.

Mr. Hernandez and his lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.

As for the man who took confessions from Taqueria Garibaldi’s workers, it was not clear whether he was a real priest. Federal investigators were unable to identify him, noting that the restaurant workers knew only that he was Mr. Hernandez’s friend.

Bryan Visitacion, a spokesman for the Diocese of Sacramento, said he did not know who the man was. “The person in question is not a priest of the Diocese of Sacramento,” he said in an email.

In sworn declarations, workers described a hostile work environment at Taqueria Garibaldi, saying that they were forced to work extra hours without pay, that they were often denied breaks and that firings happened without warning.

“I saw my co-workers hide in the walk-in refrigerator to hide and take a break to eat,” a worker whose name was redacted in court documents told investigators, adding that the manager “would not let us sit down and eat” and “would pressure you to get up and work.”

The worker said she was paid for only 40 hours while working 50 to 60 hours per week.

The Labor Department found that Mr. Hernandez; Hector Manual Martinez Galindo, who owned the restaurant with him; and Alejandro Rodriguez, a manager, instructed staff members to lie to investigators by telling them that they did not work overtime. The defendants took other measures to obstruct the investigation, the department said, including destroying payroll records and threatening some workers with deportation if they talked to federal regulators.

Workers are set to receive as much as $14,826 in back pay and damages under the court order for unpaid wages from 2018 to 2021, court documents show.