A combined taskforce of three federal agencies engaged in a lengthy investigation that culminated in the arrest of three restaurant chain executives Wednesday morning. Mark Evenson, his son, Christopher Evenson, owners of Chuy’s Mesquite Broiler restaurants with outlets in Arizona and California; and an accountant for the chain, Diane Strehlow, were charged with a variety of criminal violations, including the unlawful hiring and harboring of undocumented immigrants, conspiracy to defraud the IRS and tax evasion. If convicted of all the charges, Mark Evenson faces up to 86 years in prison and a $5.33 million fine; Christopher Evenson faces up to 81 years in prison and a $5.08 million fine; and, Strehlow faces a maximum prison term of 40 years and a $2 million fine.
The arrests represent the second high-profile immigration crackdown against a major restaurant company over the last few months, the first being Chipotle Mexican Restaurants. The fact that federal agencies appear to be aggressively targeting the restaurant industry for immigration law enforcement while allowing for well-documented rampant employment law violations in the same industry with little to no prosecution for those crimes raises questions about the administration’s intentions. Based on its almost 5000 surveys of restaurant workers, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) estimates that the restaurant industry relies heavily on immigrants and that at least one third of the restaurant workforce nationwide is undocumented. ROC’s research indicates that enforcing immigration laws in a select few high-profile cases while simultaneously failing to engage in similar high-profile crackdowns on employment law violations has not and will not stop the industry from hiring immigrant workers nor scare these workers into leaving the country; instead, such selective enforcement creates an industry culture in which immigrant workers continue to work in fear of deportation and do not speak up for their rights, leaving them vulnerable to increased exploitation.
Eight reports on the wages and working conditions of restaurant workers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Maine, Miami, Michigan, New Orleans, New York and Washington, DC, plus a National Executive Summary on the restaurant industry, were recently released by Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United (http://www.rocunited.org/).
The reports are based on almost 5000 surveys of restaurant workers and interviews with nearly 240 employers nationwide. The studies demonstrate that workers in one of the nation’s largest sectors suffer from pervasive employment law violations. They also overwhelmingly lack paid sick days, fair wages and access to health insurance.Tipped workers have not received a government mandated wage increase since 1991; and worse, 11 percent of food workers in Washington, DC, 4 percent in Los Angeles, and 7 percent in Miami, are illegally not earning the minimum wage, even after including tips in their salary.
“The fact that immigrant restaurant workers have now been separated from their families while the restaurant industry is free to continue to discriminate, steal workers’ wages and cause physical bodily harm to workers is outrageous,” said Saru Jayaraman, Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.