Phil Barber - Press Democrat
Mar 16, 2023
Young workers trying to help their families are taken advantage of by fast food chain. This is why Unionizing is so essential. This kind of thing rarely happens under the union's watchful eye. It's all about fairness for workers.
Allesandra Chavez wanted to save money for school and a car, and “learn to become more independent.”
Yanelli Vargas hoped to help her family with rent. Her mother works 4 a.m. to noon as a cook, her father is in Mexico and she has two younger brothers, including a 4-month-old with Down syndrome.
Lorenza Tapia’s family had recently been forced to move.
“We had to get a small place with just one room,” Tapia, 16, said as she sat with her two friends in an office of San Antonio High School in Petaluma, where they are all students.
“It’s me, my mom and my three younger brothers. My dad isn’t responsible, so he doesn’t help us with anything. My mom didn’t work at the time. So I had to work to help her out, because she couldn’t leave my younger brothers alone.”
So the three girls did what a lot of self-sufficient teenagers do. They applied for jobs at a fast-food restaurant.
‘It’s clearly somebody taking advantage of a situation’
Their misfortune, they said, was choosing local Subway sandwich shops. Chavez, Vargas and Tapia and several other San Antonio High students now allege the franchise owner failed to pay them wages they were owed.
“It’s clearly somebody taking advantage of a situation,” said San Antonio High teacher Eric Smith, who has been advising students on the matter since learning of the alleged wage theft during a spontaneous class discussion in September.
“It almost feels like their business plan, to take advantage of young employees in the hopes that they won’t know how to respond.”
The girls worked at the Subway shop at 961 Lakeville Highway in Petaluma. Tapia wound up floating among other locations, too, including the Subways at 221 N. McDowell Blvd., and 2620 Lakeville Highway in Petaluma, and at 124-B Calistoga Road in Santa Rosa.
According to county food inspection reports from the period during which the girls worked at Subway, at least three of the sandwich shops had the same owner (and still do): John Meza and his affiliated companies Crave Brands LLC and MZS Enterprises LLC, based in Brentwood. The Press Democrat was unable to document who owns the fourth. Crave Brands also owns a Subway shop in Windsor, according to food inspection reports.
Numerous attempts to reach Meza for this story, through listed numbers and through business associates, were unsuccessful. The effort included a visit to two of the involved Subway sandwich shops Tuesday, one in Santa Rosa and one in Petaluma. No managers were present. A reporter left business cards and requests to call.
The Press Democrat reached two other people, accountant Greg Lyons and attorney H.F. Layton, whose names appear on Crave Brands public filings. Each minimized his role in the company.
Layton declined to comment through a paralegal. Lyons offered to pass a message along to Meza.
Not long before the three San Antonio High students went to work for Meza, three of his companies — Crave Brands, MZS Enterprises and Apex Brands — received just under $190,000 in PPP loans, according to data from the U.S. Small Business Administration. That money was meant to keep employees in their jobs. About $66,000 of Meza’s PPP debt was forgiven by the U.S. government.
Tapia, Vargas and Chavez all filed reports with the California Labor Commissioner in the past two months, claiming a cumulative loss of more than $3,800, earned between December 2021 and October 2022.
“I know it’s not a lot of money,” said Vargas, 17, “but at least it was something.”
Tips, bonuses not received
The girls say they were deprived of tips, too. They got cash gratuities, but they say they never received the tips that were added to electronic transactions.
Tapia said one customer asked workers if they’d received the $20 tip he had left — a gift for their cheerful work. They had not.
Other times, a manager would plead with one of them to fill an unscheduled shift the next day, offering a $50 bonus. That money wouldn’t materialize, either.
The three students said they usually communicated with ownership through a payroll manager, Mike Ayesh. He also did not respond to repeated messages on his voicemail.
In speaking with The Press Democrat, Tapia, Chavez and Vargas had an array of complaints that ranged beyond wages.
No work permits, bathroom breaks
To start with, none of the students were asked to supply a work permit from their school, as required by the State of California. Tapia was 15 when she went to work at Subway; Vargas and Chavez were 16. The girls were never interviewed for the jobs.
“They told me, ‘Come the next day all dressed up in black, and you’re ready to work,’” Tapia said.
Vargas trained herself, she said. Then she trained Chavez, who came aboard shortly after.
They also say they weren’t given breaks and were discouraged from going to the bathroom on company time.
Often, it was just one or two minors covering the entire shop, even late shifts that involved closing up. That proposition worried teenage girls at the 961 Lakeville Highway location, where homeless men tended to congregate by a nearby supermarket.
“One time this guy came up and started saying really inappropriate things to me, and I had to call the police,” Vargas said.
Camera watching their every move
There were cameras inside the sandwich shop, and if someone took a break to eat or use the restroom, a camera’s red light would begin flashing, they said. Sure enough, they would immediately get a text or phone call from Ayesh urging them to get back to work, along with a photo grabbed from the store camera.
The three teenagers also complained of unsanitary conditions at the Subways, including cockroaches, yellowing walls and refrigerators that remained out of commission for up to three weeks. The students showed The Press Democrat photos of wilting food in display cases and a video of ants swarming over a kitchen faucet.
“I was like ashamed of that,” Vargas said. “I didn’t feel good if people were coming and seeing the store that dirty. So sometimes we’d close the store and clean as fast as we can.”
Paychecks delayed, bounce
The most tangible allegation, of course, is the wage theft.
Sometimes Crave Brands simply wouldn’t pay employees, the students said. Other times checks would arrive after substantial delays. A worker would make a deposit, only to see the check bounce and the money disappear from her bank account.
Chavez said she worked for one month — it was her first job — and never made a dime.
Employees would pester Ayesh about their money via calls, texts and WhatsApp messages. If they received any response at all, it would usually be an excuse and a promise to pay up — a promise that would go unfulfilled.
The victims weren’t just high school students, the three girls said. At one point, there was a group chat among as many as 10 employees, all complaining to management about wages owed. The girls no longer had access to those texts, Vargas said, because Ayesh kicked them off the chat for agitating.
Pretty much all of the shorted Subway employees were Latino,
the three girls said.
“I think they get Latinos because some of them, they don’t have papers,” Vargas said. “And when they don’t pay them, I feel like they get scared to sue or something because they’re scared they’re gonna get deported. Or they just don’t want to have any trouble with the law.”
Eventually, she, Tapia and Chavez all gave up and quit, and so did others. At one of the shops she worked, Tapia said, all five employees quit en masse, including a manager.
Crave Brands found replacements, though. The shop reopened.
Business license questions
Robin Ferrari, an accountant in the City of Petaluma’s Finance Department, said records show the 2620 Lakeville, 221 N. McDowell and 961 Lakeville shops were sold between May 2021 and November 2021 — before the three San Antonio High students worked there — and that the new owner(s) had never contacted the city for a revised business license.
Petaluma’s municipal code requires new owners to file an application before a business changes hands, Ferrari said, and there are penalties for not filing in a timely manner.
The city contracts with a third party, Avenu Insights, to locate unlicensed businesses. Avenu’s communications team did not respond to questions about any fines that may have been levied at Crave Brands.
Previous illegal practices
Records show this is not John Meza’s first brush with financial accusations.
In 2011, he was sentenced in Contra Costa County Superior Court to 120 days in jail and $163,000 in fines for two felony counts related to tax evasion. Meza and his wife, Jessica, were accused of failing to pay $800,000 in income, and opening a bank account using fake Social Security numbers to hide earnings.
A Bay Area News Group story at the time noted that Meza already owned seven Subway franchises by 2011.
As recently as November, the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration filed an extension for a tax lien of $226,000 against Meza.
The state Department of Industrial Relations, which handles wage disputes, said Crave Brands and MZS Enterprises have been the subject of 19 claims since Jan. 1, 2018. A department representative was unable to immediately confirm whether the three San Antonio students were included in that number.
Twelve of the 19 cases (including one in Santa Rosa) await the scheduling of settlement conferences or hearings, she said. One of the other claims was settled in favor of the worker. The Department of Industrial Relations has filed a lien against MZS Enterprises for that one.
Meanwhile, all three of these girls remain unpaid.
Their Subway experience, they said, became a bitter lesson in the power employers have over low-wage workers. But better days were ahead. Lorenza Tapia now works at the El Roy food truck, parked at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds in Petaluma.
“I love it,” she said. “I don’t work alone, I work with people. I have the right to go to the bathroom. I can take my breaks at the times I’m supposed to.”
You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or email@example.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.