By Cailin Riley
The owner and manager of the Princess Diner in Southampton pleaded guilty last week to repeatedly failing to pay their restaurant workers and scheming to defraud them by continually lying about when they could expect to receive compensation.
New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman on Friday announced the guilty pleas of Princess Diner owner Richard Bivona and manager John Kalogeras, and the corporation RJT Food & Restaurant LLC, doing business as Southampton Princess Diner.
Together, the two stole a combined total of more than $132,000 from 23 workers, according to authorities.
Between August and December 2016, workers were not paid their hourly wages, which often included overtime hours, on a weekly basis or at all. Employees who received cash tips lived off those cash tips exclusively, since Mr. Bivona withheld most of their credit card tips or paid them only a partial amount several weeks later.
Both Mr. Bivona and Mr. Kalogeras made repeated promises to the workers that payment was imminent, but many either never received any money or received only sporadic payment after waiting for weeks to be paid, according to the release. Employees continued to work at the diner in the hopes of eventually getting paid by Mr. Bivona as promised, but eventually quit when they did not receive any compensation after months of promises, they charged.
Mr. Bivona pleaded guilty in Suffolk County Supreme Court on Friday to a charge of scheme to defraud, a class E felony, and failure to pay wages, an unclassified misdemeanor. At the time of his plea, the court informed Mr. Bivona that he would be sentenced to a jail term of no more than six months at his sentencing on June 15.
Mr. Kalogeras pleaded guilty to failure to pay wages, and the court indicated that he would be given a conditional discharge.
Lastly, the corporation RJT Food & Restaurant LLC pleaded guilty to scheme to defraud and failure to secure workers’ compensation coverage, a class E felony.
The plea mandates that the defendants pay a total of $132,011.11 in restitution to their former workers—including $88,428.11 in unpaid wages to 15 employees for incidents that took place between August and December 2016, and $43,583.00 to eight other workers for incidents that took place between January 2017 and February 2018.
“Employees deserve fair pay for a fair day’s work,” Mr. Schneiderman said in a press release. “Companies that scheme to exploit their employees and stiff them of the wages they earned should take note: We will take you to court to win back workers’ hard-earned money.”
Bob Schalk of Schalk, Ciaccio and Kahn, a Mineola-based law firm, represented Mr. Kalogeras and said on Monday that he was “pleased with the outcome” of the proceedings, which will not result in any jail time for Mr. Kalogeras.
He reiterated what he had said in September when the indictments were handed down: that Mr. Kalogeras, whose family formerly owned the diner, was working in only a managerial capacity at the time, and thus “was not in charge of payroll, per se.”
“My client and his family were affiliated with the diner for many years and were upset about what transpired,” Mr. Schalk said. “But [Mr. Kalogeras] took responsibility for any wrongdoing that he was affiliated with, and we’re happy that there was no jail or probation attached to the sentence. We’ll be honoring our part of the agreed upon plea.”
Mr. Schalk declined to say whether Mr. Kalogeras knew the money was being withheld from the workers.
John Carman of Carman, Callahan and Ingham LLP, a law firm based in Garden City, represented Mr. Bivona. Back in September, when Mr. Bivona was indicted, Mr. Carman said his client did not yet own the diner when the wages were being withheld from workers.
But on Monday, he said that Mr. Bivona acknowledged that he was responsible for paying the workers.
“Like many people who venture into business, Richard Bivona was confronted with a series of unexpected challenges when he bought the Princess Diner,” Mr. Carman said. “Faced with the loss of his entire, substantial investment, Mr. Bivona tried desperately to transition the diner to new ownership.
“He failed in that regard, and in the chaos that ensued, poor decisions about the operation of the business were made,” the attorney continued. “His plea and agreement to pay back wages reflects his acknowledgment that it was ultimately his responsibility to make sure that the workers were paid.”
The diner is currently closed, and it was not immediately clear if it would open again or if it is for sale. It also was not immediately clear when it closed for business.
The guilty pleas were welcome news for Martha Maffei, executive director of SEPA Mujer, a local grassroots Latina immigrant women’s rights organization based in Islandia, with a local chapter in Hampton Bays. She worked with local law enforcement agencies to bring the diner owners to justice.
“I’m very happy,” Ms. Maffei said. “They really put all their resources together to help the people who have been victimized for a long time, and they finally found justice. I feel like this is the beginning—it’s a precedent. We have to highlight how this is not acceptable. I think this is a strong message.”
She also pointed out that she was happy with the work the multiple agencies put into the case, and was particularly thankful for the work of Southampton Town Police Detective Kevin Gwinn.
Ms. Maffei added that SEPA Mujer is trying to increase its efforts and resources to help workers from the Latino community know and understand their rights, and added that her organization has seen an increase in calls and complaints of a similar nature since the story about the Princess Diner workers came to light. “We want to have the capacity and structure to guide people in the community who are victims of these kinds of crimes,” she said.
While the guilty pleas were a victory for the workers, Ms. Maffei pointed out that it is not a completely rosy picture. She said that while many workers she reached expressed delighted shock that the guilty pleas were secured, many also said they are still fearful of reprisals from their former employers, and are also worried that the money they’re owed still might not end up in their hands.
Despite that, Ms. Maffei hopes the outcome provides an impetus for other workers in similar situations to speak up, and she said in any of those cases, SEPA Mujer is eager to help.
“Anyone can reach out to us if they have a similar situation or complaint,” she said. “We will be the resource they need, and all of the information is confidential. This is an example of how a community can work together.”
Mr. Bivona took over the diner from Mr. Kalogeras in August 2016, but kept Mr. Kalogeras on as the manager to run its day-to-day operations. Restaurant employees—including cooks, dishwashers, bussers, and servers—many of whom had previously worked for the diner for more than 10 years, continued to work under Mr. Bivona’s stewardship.
Together, the defendants cheated 15 employees out of $88,428.11 in wages, according to the charges. Separately, Mr. Bivona cheated another eight employees out of $43,583.00 by failing to pay them and reimburse them for restaurant expenses between January 2017 and February 2018, according to the state.
The investigation was a team effort that included investigators with the attorney’s general’s office, the State Department of Labor, the State Workers’ Compensation Board, the Suffolk County district attorney’s office and Southampton Town Police, specifically Det. Gwinn, Detective Sergeant Lisa Costa and Chief of Police Steven E. Skrynecki, the release from Mr. Schneiderman’s office noted.
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A New York coalition of advocacy groups on Tuesday urged immigrants with expiring protections from deportation under DACA and TPS to renew participation in those programs as a Monday deadline nears for tens of thousands in the state.
March 19 is the cutoff for immigrants from El Salvador and Haiti to re-register with the federal government for Temporary Protected Status, a provisional exemption from deportation given to people from designated countries in turmoil due to war, natural disasters and other extraordinary conditions.
Haitians and Salvadorans were told they could renew TPS for a final 18 months as the administration of President Donald Trump will terminate their participation in 2019, citing changing conditions in their countries. About 31,200 Salvadorans and 9,700 Haitians in New York are TPS holders, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Execs: ‘Massive economic hit’ to LI if Salvadorans depart
Letter by Laura Curran and Steve Bellone comes in wake of federal decision to end Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans on Sept. 9, 2019.
For young immigrants who came or stayed illegally as minors, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, is an executive action shielding them from immigration enforcement. They can re-enroll while federal court orders are in place in a legal fight to save that protection.
Trump sought to end DACA this year, saying the executive action was an abuse of executive powers by the previous administration. About 43,900 immigrants had been approved for DACA in New York, according to the latest figures.
“This administration led by President Trump has made a number of cruel decisions to terminate protections for immigrant New Yorkers,” said Anu Joshi, immigration policy director at the New York Immigration Coalition, a Manhattan-based group with a Long Island affiliate.
The Coalition, Joshi said, is “urging everyone from El Salvador or Haiti who have TPS to renew their status immediately . . . to ensure that they have the ability to work and live free from the fear of deportation for the maximum amount of time.”
DACA recipients whose protection expires within six months, or has already expired, also should renew, she said.
Advocates suggest affected immigrants call New York State’s Office for New Americans at 800-566-7636 to seek guidance.
Inmaculada Oliva, a Salvadoran immigrant who lives in Port Jefferson, said she hoped to keep her protected status.
“TPS has been a relief for me in many ways,” Oliva said. “I have health insurance, thank God, and I was able to buy my little house” since the program allows her to work legally and serves as a key form of identification. “We really do need it. ”
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Gracias a la valentía de un grupo de trabajadores locales que se atrevió a denunciar el abuso laborar que estaba sucediendo en el restaurante donde trabajaban, el viernes por fin se hizo justicia dijo el Fiscal General del Estado de Nueva York Eric T. Schneiderman en un comunicado.
Schneiderman anunció el pasado viernes que el dueño y manager del Princess Diner, además de la corporación RJT Food & Restaurant LLC que opera haciendo negocios bajo el nombre de Southampton Princess Diner, se han declarado culpables de varios cargos con respecto a abusos laborales en contra de sus trabajadores.
“Los empleados merecen un salario justo por el trabajo de un día justo,” dijo Schneiderman en un comunicado. “Las empresas que planean explotar a sus empleados y no pagarles los salarios que se ganaron deben tomar nota: los llevaremos a corte para recuperar el dinero ganado con tanto esfuerzo de los trabajadores.”
Richard Bivona, el dueño y John Kalogeras, el manager, robaron en total más de $132,000 de 23 trabajadores y fueron acusados de no pagar a sus empleados en numerosas ocasiones y de conspirar para defraudarlos mintiéndoles sobre cuando podrían recibir sus compensaciones laborales, según un comunicado de prensa.
Bivona se declaró culpable de un cargo de conspiración para defraudar en la Corte Suprema del Condado de Suffolk el viernes, una delito mayor clasificado como una felonía clase E, y fallar en pagar salarios a sus empleados de forma repetida, un delito menor. Bivona será sentenciado el 15 de junio de 2018 a una condena de no más de seis meses en la cárcel.
Kalogeras por su lado se declaró culpable de no pagar salarios y la corte indicó que no pagaría cárcel si cumplía con ciertas condiciones mandadas por la misma.
La compañía que representa al diner, RJT Food & Restaurant, LLC se declaró culpable de conspirar para defraudar y de fallar en obtener seguro de compensación de trabajadores (worker’s compensation,) una felonía clase E.
La Directora Ejecutiva de SEPA Mujer, una organización sin ánimo de lucro que busca empoderar a la mujer latina, dijo que aunque este es un caso que ha ganado prominencia a nivel estatal, todo empezó gracias a dos trabajadoras que decidieron alzar su voz.
Estas trabajadores latinas habían participado en un curso de liderazgo organizado por SEPA y decidieron contactar a la organización para que las ayudara con la situación. SEPA las ayudo a reunir a todos los trabajadores que estaban sufriendo no ser pagados durante meses y los refirió a las autoritades apropiadas como el Departamento de Policía de Southampton, el Departamento de Labor y el Fiscal General del Condado de Suffolk.
“Fueron muy valientes todas las personas que se unieron y tuvieron el poder de hablar,” dijo Maffei.
El acuerdo entre los acusados y la corte ordena que se pague un total de $132,011 en restitución a los trabajadores, incluyendo $88,428 en salarios aún sin pagar a 15 empleados por incidentes que pasaron entre agosto y diciembre del 2016, y $43,583 a otros ocho empleados por incidentes que ocurrieron entre enero y febrero de 2018.
El Princess Diner en Southampton, ubicado en el 32 de la Montauk Highway en Southampton, es un lugar popular en el afluente área y ha estado operando durante décadas. Muchos de los empleados—desde los cocineros, meseros, ayudantes y demás—han estado trabajando allí por más de diez años.
Kalogeras fue el dueño del restaurante hasta agosto de 2016, cuando Bivona se hizo cargo. Kalogeras sin embargo se quedó como encargado para llevar a cabo las operaciones diarias.
Entre agosto y diciembre de 2016, a los trabajadores no se les pagó sus horas trabajadas semanales, que muchas veces en época de temporada alta incluía horas extras. Los empleados que recibían propinas en efectivo vivían de esas propinas exclusivamente, ya que Bivona retuvo la mayoría de las propinas hechas por tarjetas de crédito o les pagó solamente una cantidad parcial semanas después.
Los trabajadores, a quienes se les había hecho promesas falsas de pago según el comunicado de Schneiderman, habían aguantado mucho tiempo en sean situación por miedo y por desconocer sus derechos, dijo Maffei.
“Nosotros queremos que la comunidad sepa que tiene derechos,” dijo Maffei, y añadió que SEPA está intentado educar a la comunidad desde la base.
“Queremos ser el puente entre la comunidad y las agencias del estado y fuerzas de la ley.”
Maffei explicó que la organización busca educar a a la comunidad de sus derechos y explicarles de los recursos que existen para aquellos que están sufriendo abusos laborales.
Además dijo que actualmente están buscando fondos para crear un programa con una persona que sirva de enlace comunitario donde los trabajadores puedan venir y poner quejas directamente, sin miedo y con confianza.
“Queremos ofrecer un espacio seguro para la gente, y pondremos como ejemplo este caso donde se ha hecho justicia,” ella dijo.
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Advocates spoke out on Tuesday at a public hearing at the Suffolk County Legislature general meeting on a proposed county law that would codify and expand a 2012 executive order that mandates language access for the county’s limited English proficient population.
Among the advocates speaking was Cheryl Keshner, senior paralegal with the Empire Justice Center and coordinator of LILAC, short for the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition.
“There is a need for oversight… for community involvement of stakeholders and advocates who are supporting not only the immigrant community, but people with disabilities,” Keshner said.
The bill, sponsored by Legislator Monica Martinez, describes Suffolk as “linguistically diverse,” with 20 percent of its population, 5 years and older, speaking a language other than English in their household.
It would mandate any agency that provides public services to translate vital documents in the six most common non-English languages spoken in the county, based on Census data. These are Italian, Mandarin, Spanish, Polish, Haitian Creole, and Portuguese. The bill would also stipulate agencies to provide “competent interpretation” services.
“We saw numerous disparities in the way our limited English proficient clients and community members were being treated when seeking an order of protection, when applying for emergency housing, when trying to get health services, or accessible transportation,” Keshner said. “Many were left waiting until the end of the day when going to county offices seeking assistance, or were told to rely on their young children, or even to find a stranger in the parking lot in order to provide interpretation.”
Speaking at the hearing was also Siris Barrios, a community liaison for community revitalization group Riverside Rediscovered and a board member of SEPA Mujer. Living on Long Island for six years now as an active community member, she recounted a traumatic story from her childhood in California for the public hearing.
“When I was 8 years old, there was a murder on our property… When the police arrived, I was the translator for everyone. And, looking back, it was so normal to translate at the doctor… or anytime my mom had to interface with anyone,” Barrios said.
In such situations, she said, it is inefficient and inappropriate to have non-qualified people translate or mediate access to services.
LILAC members have been testing the quality of language accessibility in both Nassau and Suffolk counties for the past several years. In the latest round, taking place in 2017 from August to December, 88 calls were made. Of these, only 14 callers were connected to a language line, while 16 were directed to bilingual staff. The rest of the time, callers did not receive services or were directed to voicemail with English only instructions. On a few extreme occasions, Keshner said, those answering used expletives or told callers to go back to their countries.
SEPA Mujer Community Organizer Dulce Rojas, who also spoke at the hearing, said that even just one instance of failing to connect a caller to vital information could be hazardous.
“Also, just the fact that we were calling about non-emergency calls… these were just very basic questions, and there were still no assistance for services. So, I can’t imagine someone calling with an emergency,” Rojas said. “The one time they call for assistance might be the only time they reach out.”
And, in some cases, a plea for help lost in translation can turn deadly. Keshner cited a triple homicide in Queens in 2014, which may have been prevented had adequate translation services been provided. The late Deisy Garcia filed two domestic violence reports against her husband in Spanish with police.
However, the reports were never translated, as is mandated by New York City Police Department protocol. Just months after the second report was filed, Garcia and her two young children were stabbed to death, by her husband who later pled guilty to the charges.
With the resolution expected to be voted on in the upcoming county general meeting, it could mark a bold step forward for Long Island truly welcoming immigrants. Strong language access can help bridge the gap and allow our immigrant neighbors to more fully contribute to Long Island in all respects.
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Foreign language speakers phoning Suffolk County offices last year were hung up on, laughed at, and in the case of one participant, called a derogatory name and told to go back to her country, advocates told legislators Tuesday as they considered a bill mandating translation services at county offices.
Advocates speaking Spanish and Urdu made the “test” calls last year after non-English speakers complained they were turned away from accessing county services, including filing police reports and applying for social service benefits.
The bill would codify into law a 2012 executive order issued by County Executive Steve Bellone that requires county agencies to provide access to a translation phone service for non-English speakers, and translate key documents into six languages.
“It is disturbing this was signed in 2012 and we’re not in full compliance,” said Cheryl Keshner, coordinator for the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition and community advocate of the Central Islip-based Empire Justice Center. The bill would also expand the language-access requirements to other countywide elected officials, including the Suffolk Sheriff’s office, which runs the jail.
She said group members made 88 calls from August to December, asking basic questions of how to access services. The calls frequently went to voicemail without non-English language instructions. They were answered by a person 52 times; connected to a language line 14 times, and directed to bilingual staff on 16 occasions. The other 22 times, the callers did not receive services, Keshner said.
She credited Bellone for the executive order, but said the results show the need for more oversight.
In an August call to the Suffolk police department’s 7th Precinct, one woman asked in Spanish the time of the next community meeting. The person who answered called the woman an expletive and told her to go back to her own country, said Dulce Rojas, eastern Suffolk community organizer for SEPA Mujer, which provides immigration services for women who are victims of assault and domestic violence.
The coalition reported the results of its survey to the U.S. Department of Justice, which is monitoring the Suffolk County Police Department under a consent decree for discrimination practices toward Latino communities, Rojas and Keshner said.
Outside Tuesday’s meeting, Acting Suffolk Police Commissioner Stuart Cameron said the woman’s complaint would be investigated and many of the lines are recorded.
“By and large our officers are professional,” he said. “If it occurred, the officer absolutely would be punished and disciplined for it.”
He said officers have had or are undergoing training on identifying hate crimes and improving language access to non-English speakers. New tablets being distributed in police vehicles will also easily connect non-English speakers with translators.
County Executive spokesman Jason Elan said Bellone supports the legislation and “will work with her to expand all aspects of this program including training and public awareness.”
A county official said the administration became aware of the August incident last month and is “looking into this.”
“That’s a disgraceful and disgusting thing you’re saying one of our officers said,” Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), the Republican minority leader, told the advocates.
Martinez, the bill sponsor, said the legislative body needs to look into the allegations further.
“I will continue to work with advocates and community groups to make sure incidents such as these don’t happen again,” she said. She asked community members to file complaints when incidents like this occur.
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