Former employees of LA council candidate alleged wage theft

Eight years ago, restaurant worker Jose Higareda filed a salary complaint at the Caliente Cantina restaurant in San Pedro, telling state investigators he was not being paid for more than 100 hours of work.

Isaac Garcia, a chef who made $10 an hour, testified that the same establishment failed to pay him $480 in 2014. Dishwasher and cook Jose Flores Esqueda filed another complaint, saying Caliente Cantina does not had not compensated him for $1,080 of work. year.

All three identified the restaurant owner as businesswoman Danielle Sandoval, according to documents filed in their payroll cases, copies of which have been reviewed by The Times. Two returned a text message exchange in which Sandoval, now a candidate for Los Angeles City Council, allegedly acknowledged that they were owed money. A third said he spoke directly with her.

Sandoval “continued to make excuses for not paying,” according to testimony provided by Flores Esqueda in 2015, which was summarized in an order issued by the hearing officer in his case.

The hearing officer, acting on behalf of the state labor commissioner, found that the restaurant failed to pay the three workers, committing state labor code violations commonly known as wage theft, said Paola Laverde, spokeswoman for the state industry department. Reports.

Caliente Cantina is now closed and Sandoval is running in the November 8 election to represent a district stretching from Watts to San Pedro. But wage claims filed by those three workers, along with a fourth, are still pending and have not been paid, Laverde said Thursday.

On June 30, three weeks after Sandoval placed second in the June 7 primary election, the nonprofit Wage Justice Center sent two payment requests to Cantina Investments LLC, a company Sandoval helped create in 2014. The letters said two of those workers owed a combined $12,271, with the total increasing as interest accrued.

“The longer this judgment remains unpaid, the longer your business will owe,” wrote the nonprofit group, which is retained by the labor commissioner, whose office investigates complaints of wage theft.

The letters were addressed to Cantina Investments LLC, dba Caliente Cantina, c/o Danielle Sandoval.

Sandoval, in an interview, denied committing salary theft. Last week she said she was unaware of the claims of the four employees. She said the restaurant had a payroll company.

“I didn’t send hours. I didn’t write schedules. We had supervisors who did all of this. We had an accountant who sent the invoices,” she said.

Sandoval told The Times on Friday that she was the owner of Caliente Cantina. On Monday, she said she was managing partner. She did not clarify her role with Cantina Investments LLC, saying the company has been dissolved – and she is now talking to her attorney.

“We look forward to resolving this issue as soon as possible,” she said.

State business records from 2014 identify Sandoval as one of two organizers of Cantina Investments LLC, the company listed as the sole defendant in the four wage cases. The other organizer was San Pedro resident Quinn Padilla, who later married Sandoval, according to business and court records.

Sandoval and Padilla signed the company’s articles of association. However, an organizer of an LLC is not necessarily an owner.

Padilla initially told The Times he would be available for a phone call, but then stopped responding to inquiries.

Sandoval would not define the relationship between Cantina Investments and his restaurant. In their filings, state labor officials said Cantina Investments LLC did business as Caliente Cantina.

Laverde, a spokesman for the Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees the labor commissioner’s office, said it can be difficult to collect money from LLCs that have violated state labor laws. State.

“If warranted, the state should conduct additional investigation and pursue further legal action to recover these entities,” she said.

A 2014 state enterprise filing also lists Sandoval as an agent for Cantina Investments, which would have made her the company’s contact for legal correspondence. The document said the company had more than one director but did not identify them.

In 2015, state agencies placed more than $37,000 in liens on Cantina Investments, nearly a third of which came from unpaid wages, damages and penalties owed in the restaurant’s four wage cases, according to records from state and county.

Sandoval accused lawyer Tim McOsker, his rival in the council’s campaign, of doing “successful political work”.

“It’s an inside job, a hit job from my opponent,” she said.

City Council candidate Tim McOsker, pictured in the Port of Los Angeles in 2020, said the district needed someone who “stands with working families”.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

McOsker hit back at Sandoval, saying Caliente Cantina’s wage demands were filed years ago, long before the campaign began. He also pointed out that Sandoval invested $37,000 of his own money in his campaign.

That money could have been used to pay “real people” who suffered financial harm working at Caliente Cantina, McOsker said.

“We need a council member who stands with working families, not one who exploits them,” he said.

Sandoval and McOsker are running to replace Councilman Joe Buscaino in a district that includes the neighborhoods of Wilmington, Harbor City and Harbor Gateway.

Although he spent heavily, Sandoval ran a competitive campaign, earning endorsements from United Teachers Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Times editorial board, which operates separately from the newsroom.

In recent weeks, councilwoman-elect Eunisses Hernandez, who ousted councilman Gil Cedillo in June, has urged his supporters to donate to Sandoval’s campaign. The candidate municipal controller Kenneth Mejia also promoted Sandoval Council’s offer. On Sunday, he showed up in San Pedro to knock on doors on his own behalf and on behalf of other candidates.

Still, claims of wage theft could slow Sandoval’s momentum, raising questions about his business history and his commitment to workers.

Sandoval identified herself on the ballot as an entrepreneur and community leader. During her campaign, she described the difficulties she faced when she opened a restaurant.

“What I’ve found is that our city is not small business friendly,” she told the Valley Views radio show. “By the time you finish opening, you’re already almost $100,000 in debt.”

Caliente Cantina opened on 7th Street in San Pedro in 2014 and quickly caught the eye. Sandoval appeared on the cover of San Pedro Today, a monthly magazine, with an article that identified her as the “sole proprietor” of Caliente Cantina.

That same year, Sandoval highlighted his work at Caliente Cantina while running for a seat on the San Pedro Central Neighborhood Council. In her declaration of candidacy, she described herself as a business owner who had chosen to “reopen and revive a once-cherished restaurant”.

Sandoval joined the neighborhood council and Caliente Cantina closed soon after. The following year, Caliente Cantina workers appeared at a state labor commissioner hearing, where they described their experiences.

Garcia, who worked for nearly six weeks as a chef at the restaurant, testified that at one point Sandoval paid him with a personal check. He submitted an exchange of text messages in which Sandoval acknowledged that she owed him and Higareda for the work they had done, in accordance with the order issued in his case.

Higareda, who earned $10 an hour at the restaurant, told investigators he lost 94.5 hours of regular pay and about seven overtime hours. He also submitted the text exchange, pursuant to the Hearing Officer’s order.

Flores Esqueda, who worked at the restaurant in July and August 2014, testified that he alerted Sandoval that he had not been paid for 90 hours of work. Sandoval responded with an apology, he said.

“One day she told him she wasn’t going to pay him,” the order reads.

No one from Caliente Cantina, including Sandoval, attended the 2015 hearing or provided written responses to the allegations, per the state’s order. The hearing focused on civil, not criminal, violations, Laverde said.

Asked about the workers’ demands, Sandoval told The Times that she fired some of her employees for theft and drug use, but did not provide names.

The Times could not determine whether she was describing the employees in the wage theft cases. Sandoval also said the problems faced by Caliente Cantina – such as taxes, permits and “bureaucracy” – show that small businesses “get the end of the stick”.

“That’s why small business owners are unable to survive,” she said. “I couldn’t even last a year with all the money I lost.”

Los Angeles Times

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