L.A. council candidate’s former employees alleged wage theft

Eight years ago, restaurant worker Jose Higareda filed a wage lawsuit against the Caliente Cantina restaurant in San Pedro, telling state investigators that he had not been paid for more than 100 hours worked.

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

All three identified the restaurant’s owner as businesswoman Danielle Sandoval, according to documents in their wage cases, copies of which were reviewed by The Times. The two passed a text message exchange in which Sandoval, now a candidate for Los Angeles City Council, allegedly acknowledged they were owed money. A third said he spoke to her directly.

According to Flores Esqueda’s 2015 testimony, summarized in a decision by the Hearing Officer in his case, “Sandoval kept making excuses for non-payment”.

The hearing officer, acting on behalf of the state labor commissioner, found that the restaurant failed to pay the three workers and engaged in violations of the state labor code commonly known as wage theft, Paola Laverde, spokeswoman for the state Industry Department, said Relations.

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 finished second in the June 7 primary, the nonprofit Wage Justice Center sent two payment requests to Cantina Investments LLC, a company that Sandoval helped found in 2014, totaling $12,271, where the total amount increases with accruing interest.

“The longer this judgment goes unpaid, the more your company will owe,” wrote the nonprofit group, which is maintained by the labor inspector whose office investigates wage theft lawsuits.

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

In an interview, Sandoval denied being involved in wage theft. Last week she said she was unaware of the allegations made by the four employees. She said the restaurant has a company that handles the payroll.

“I didn’t submit any lessons. I didn’t write the schedules. We had supervisors who did all of that. We had an accountant who sent out the invoices,” she said.

Sandoval told the Times Friday that she owns the Caliente Cantina. On Monday she said she was a managing partner. She would not clarify her role at Cantina Investments LLC, saying the company has been dissolved — and that she is now consulting with her attorney.

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

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

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

Padilla initially told the Times he was available for a call but later stopped responding to inquiries.

Sandoval would not define Cantina Investments’ relationship with her restaurant. In their filings, state employment officials said that Cantina Investments LLC does business as Caliente Cantina.

Laverde, spokeswoman for the Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees the labor commissioner’s office, said collecting money from LLCs that have proven violations of state labor laws can be difficult.

“If warranted, the state would need to conduct additional investigations and initiate new legal actions in court to recover against these companies,” she said.

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

In 2015, state agencies left Cantina Investments with more than $37,000 in liens, with nearly a third coming from unpaid wages, damages, and penalties owed in the restaurant’s four wage cases, according to state and regional records.

Sandoval accused attorney Tim McOsker of performing “a political hit job” on her council campaign rival.

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

City Council candidate Tim McOsker pictured in San Pedro in 2020.

City Council candidate Tim McOsker, pictured in LA Harbor in 2020, said the borough needs someone who “represents working families.”

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

McOsker fired back at Sandoval, saying Caliente Cantina’s wage demands were filed several years ago, well before the campaign began. He also pointed out that Sandoval poured $37,000 of her own money into her campaign.

That money could have been used to pay the “real people” who were financially harmed while working at the Caliente Cantina, McOsker said.

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

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

Despite his high spending, Sandoval has campaigned competitively and has received support 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 Councilor Gil Cedillo in June, has been given a mandate urged their supporters to donate to Sandoval’s campaign. City Controller candidate Kenneth Mejia has too promoted Advice offered by Sandoval. On Sunday he showed up in San Pedro knock on doors on behalf of her and other candidates.

Still, the wage theft lawsuits could slow Sandoval’s momentum and raise questions about her business background and commitment to workers.

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

“What I found was that our city is not a place for small business,” she told the Valley Views radio show. “By the time you’re done opening, you’ll already have almost $100,000 in debt.”

Caliente Cantina opened on 7th Street in San Pedro in 2014 and quickly drew attention. Sandoval appeared on the cover of San Pedro Today, a monthly magazine, along with an article identifying her as the “sole owner” of Caliente Cantina.

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

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

Garcia, who worked as a chef at the restaurant for almost six weeks, testified that Sandoval once paid him with a personal check. He filed a text message exchange in which Sandoval admitted that she owed him and Higareda the work they had done, under the order issued in his case.

Higareda, who earned $10 an hour at the restaurant, told investigators that he lost 94.5 regular hours and about seven overtime hours. He also submitted the exchange of texts as ordered by the Hearing Officer.

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 apologies, 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 state orders. The hearing addressed civil, not criminal, violations, Laverde said.

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

The Times could not determine whether it was describing the employees in the wage theft cases. Sandoval also said the problems Caliente Cantina faces — such as taxes, permits and “red tape” — show small businesses are “getting the short end of the stick.”

“That’s why small business owners can’t survive,” she said. “With all the money I lost, I wouldn’t have lasted even a year.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-09-23/la-city-council-candidate-wage-theft-allegations L.A. council candidate’s former employees alleged wage theft

Alley Einstein

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