3 Petaluma teens say they are owed thousands by a local Subway shop owner

3 Petaluma teens say they are owed thousands by a local Subway shop owner

“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 protected]. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

Source link

Scroll to Top