On Wednesday, the owner of nine Papa John’s franchises in New York City pled guilty to the first criminal case brought by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman against a fast food franchisee over wage theft.
According to court documents, including company records obtained by the attorney general’s office, Abdul Jamil Khokhar, the franchisee, and BMY Foods Inc. paid its 300 current and former workers the same base rate for any hours they worked after putting in 40 a week, which under law should be paid time-and-a-half. To get away with paying less, they allegedly paid overtime hours in cash and created fake names for the employees in the timekeeping system. They then filed fraudulent tax returns that left out the cash payments made to employees under the false names.
Khokhar’s sentencing is set for September 21, when he faces 60 days in jail. He also faces paying the employees $230,000 in back wages as well as an additional $230,000 in damages and $50,000 in civil penalties.
BMY Foods Inc. declined to comment. A Papa John’s spokesperson said in an emailed statement, “Papa John’s is aware of the recent incident involving one of our New York franchisees who was taken into custody this morning. These allegations do not reflect our position as a company. We have a strong track record of compliance with the law. We do not condone the actions of any franchisee that violates the law. This particular franchisee has divested itself of most of its restaurants and is in the process of exiting the system. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and take appropriate action.”
Jail time is unusual for people who perpetuate wage theft, but Schneiderman may not be done. “My office will not hesitate to criminally prosecute any employer who underpays workers and then tries to cover it up by creating fake names and filing fraudulent tax returns,” he said in a press release. “We will continue to be relentless in pursuing the widespread labor law violations, large and small, which we have found in the fast food industry.”
This isn’t the first time Schneiderman has gone after Papa John’s franchisees. In October of last year, he sued some in New York for allegedly stealing wages from more than 400 delivery drivers, seeking more than $2 million in backpay, damages, and interest. Then in February he won a nearly $800,000 judgement against another who allegedly ripped off employees.
He’s also focused on wage theft prosecutions in the New York fast food industry generally. In March of last year, he won a $448,000 payout from 23 Domino’s Pizza franchise owners and a nearly $500,000 one from a McDonald’s franchisee.
Wage theft, where workers aren’t paid minimum wage and/or overtime, are made to work off the clock, or are made to buy uniforms or equipment out of their own paychecks, is particularly rampant in the fast food industry. One poll found that about 90 percent of these workers have experienced at least one form of theft. But it’s also not limited to fast food. In 2012, at least $933 million was won in backpay by the Department of Labor, state labor departments, state attorneys general, and research firms. That sum dwarfs the less than $350 million taken in all robberies that year. Even that understates the extent of the problem, however, since many employees don’t file formal charges; it’s estimated that the country’s employers steal more than $50 billion from their employees every year.
Some places have taken steps to go beyond federal wage and hour laws to try to crack down on wage theft. On Wednesday, Jersey City, New Jersey unanimously adopted a law that would revoke city licenses from any company that doesn’t reimburse workers for lost wages, a step that has been taken in other places across the country. Other cities have upped the penalties for wage theft and enhanced enforcement measures.