Activists, union members, and a worker who says she is owed tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid overtime protested in front of an Iowa City burger restaurant Monday.
Rita, who requested Starting Line not use her last name, said she worked for the past 13 years at Short’s Burger and Shine in downtown Iowa City for owner Kevin Perez. In Spanish through an interpreter, Rita said she did every kind of job he asked of her from 8-or-8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., without a lunch break.
Rita said she thought Perez was paying her fairly, except for a two-week period after she sustained an injury on the job. When she asked the Center for Worker Justice (CWJ) of Eastern Iowa in October for help getting paid for that time, organizers noticed she had not been paid overtime pay for the last few years—and, CWJ suspects, for her entire 13-year employment.
Instead, Rita alleges she was paid for her overtime as if she had worked it at the regular wage at a different restaurant “she never set foot in,” her interpreter said.
If true, it would be a form of wage theft and was the reason CWJ organized the protest.
“In his system, it clearly said ‘overtime.’ But he was not paying it,” said CWJ Executive Director Mazahir Salih. “He was paying it as regular time.”
When CWJ asked for payroll records for Rita, they said Perez provided records for 2021 and 2020, but made excuses for the remaining 11 years.
“He doesn’t want to provide it to us,” Salih said.
Perez showed up to talk to CWJ and protesters to make his case. He said he hadn’t had time—while running several businesses—to find the records CWJ was demanding. Perez also said he didn’t know those records existed as far back as 2008.
“I mean, they might in a box somewhere, I don’t know—hard to say,” he said. “It was easy to get the last two years, ’cause the computers are sitting there.”
The original Short’s at 18 South Clinton St. in Iowa City was the one Rita worked at. It recently closed—Perez says temporarily—because he wasn’t able to finance needed repairs to the building, his representative told the Iowa City Press-Citizen last week. The protest was instead held at the Westbury Drive location, which remains open along with the location in Marion.
Opening in 2008 to much fanfare after being backed by former Hawkeyes and NFL kicker Nate Kaeding, Short’s was known for burger recipes so delicious it was named the “best burger in Iowa” twice, by Thrillist in 2015 and by Trip Advisor in 2018.
But the COVID pandemic and resulting loss of customers hit Short’s hard. Perez noted his businesses only made half, or in some cases a third, of the revenue it brought in before 2020, making it difficult for him to make payments to Rita right now.
“They have to do what they have to do,” he said. “I can’t get money from (anywhere).”
Perez said he did pay Rita for her work in 2021 and 2020, which CWJ agrees with, after the two sides met over the last several months to talk about Rita’s issues.
“Any payment plan that he needs, we can do it,” Salih said, noting Perez was “really cooperating with us” initially.
But talks broke down when Perez couldn’t produce payment records prior to 2020. He rejected a payment plan that estimated Rita’s unpaid earnings from 2008 through 2019 at $19,000, prompting the protest.
“It bums me out, ’cause I actually think I’m a good guy,” Perez said. “I’ve worked for 30 years, I’ve had thousands of employees, and I’ve never had an issue.”
When pressed by activists to schedule another meeting about Rita’s payments this week, however, Perez wouldn’t commit to one. He also admitted he wasn’t returning phone calls or text messages from CWJ organizer Kaille Simmons. After pushback, he agreed to text Simmons by the end of Monday to set up a time.
Simmons said a lawsuit could be filed to compel payment, but it would be up to Rita.
Rita says there were “many other people” Perez had paid similarly. She suspects they’re unwilling to talk as undocumented immigrants, afraid that asking for help will get them fired or deported.
She just wants Perez “to pay what is owed to her,” she said.
By Amie Rivers
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