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Know Your Rights
Source: Daily News
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

America a cruel ordeal for one Queens immigrant

Single mother suffers as her wage theft case against a vanished restaurant drags on.

Her American dream has been a nightmare.

Corona resident Celina Alvarez came to Queens in 2012 after members of a drug cartel destroyed her home and business in Mexico — but life in America has hardly been easier.

An owner of the Jackson Heights restaurant where Alvarez worked during the last two months of 2012 owes the mother of six $4,626 in back wages, but the complaint she filed with the state Department of Labor in April 2013 has fallen on deaf ears.

“When I first got here, I thought workers in this country would receive better treatment, like the treatment I gave my workers in Mexico,” said Alvarez, 50, who gathered with other disgruntled workers and members of Make the Road New York to picket outside of one of Gonzaga’s many other restaurants. “In short time, I found the opposite is true.”

Alvarez worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week at El Poblano in the last two months of 2012, but owner Jacinto Gonzaga shorted her and then closed the restaurant shortly after she quit .

“This is what happens — they shut down,” said Make the Road attorney Sebastian Sanchez, who organized the rally on Wednesday. “It’s very common.”

Alvarez fled her native Mexico after violent gangsters in the crime-ridden Michoacan state terrorized her, she said.

She wanted to save enough money to build a new house in Mexico, but she suffered a brain hemorrhage in May 2013 that left her unable to work. Stress from her wage theft case against Gonzaga contributed to the stroke, she claimed.

“He said that if I kept bothering him, then they would take revenge in a very serious way,” said Alvarez, whose case is just one of more than 14,000 wage theft complaints pending in New York, according to a 2013 Make the Road report.

Gonzaga owns six properties and five businesses, but he’s filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy three times in the past two years, property records show. He’s also racked up 23 court judgments and tax liens for more than $196,000 since 1996.

Phone calls and emails to Gonzaga were not returned Wednesday and Make the Road hasn’t been able to make contact with him for months either, Sanchez says.

But Alvarez is hopeful the state — or some other higher power — will help her reclaim the lost wages.

“I have faith in God,” Alvarez said.

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