Four U.S. Virgin Islands supermarkets, and their owner and former operations manager have been ordered to pay 33 workers – including janitors, security guards and stock people – $240,000 in back wages and liquidated damages after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor found the employer denied them overtime wages.
The judgment, entered Wednesday in V.I. District Court, orders World Fresh Market LLC — operating as Pueblo Supermarkets on St. Thomas and St. Croix — owner Ahmad Alkhatib and former operations manager Steven Bockino to pay the affected employees $120,000 in back wages and an equal amount in liquidated damages.
The judgment also requires the employers to comply with federal minimum wage, overtime and recordkeeping requirements as well as not take any retaliatory action against any employee, according to a press release from the Labor Department announcing the settlement.
According to the consent judgment, Alkhatib and Bockino “neither admit nor deny the allegations of violations set forth in the Secretary’s complaint. Defendants agree to the provisions of this Consent Judgment to avoid the burden and expense of protracted litigation.”
According to the court docket, the complaint was filed in V.I. District Court in May 2020. It alleged that the defendants purposely misclassified many of their hourly employees as “salaried” in a bid to flaunt the Fair Labor Standards Act and to avoid paying them overtime premiums for long hours worked and as required by law.
“Defendants purport to characterize these misclassifications to employees as ‘promotions,’ when in reality employees continue performing working substantially the same duties as they did as hourly employees, with little or no managerial responsibilities, for 72 hours per week or more without any overtime premiums,” the complaint stated.
In 2010, the division found Pueblo Supermarkets’ pay practices violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, according to the Labor Department. At the conclusion of the investigation, the employer agreed to correct its practices and abide by the law, it said.
The department’s Wage and Hour Division’s latest investigation — for the period from at least June 3, 2017, through at least June 5, 2019, according to the judgment — identified violations of the act’s overtime and record-keeping requirements by Pueblo Supermarkets, it said. Specifically, it found the employer:
- Improperly characterized employees as “managers,” exempt from FLSA coverage, and paid them flat rates without the required premium for overtime hours worked.
- Failed to maintain required payroll records for multiple employees, including those improperly characterized as “managers.”
- Permitted at least one employee to work off the clock, causing overtime violations.
- Failed to keep accurate records of some employees’ work hours, hourly pay and overtime rates.
In addition to requiring payment of back wages and damages, the court enforced the department’s assessment of $10,000 in civil money penalties for the willful nature of Pueblo Supermarkets’ latest violations, the Labor Department reported.
“When employers like Pueblo Supermarkets ignore the law, they deny workers the hard-earned wages they need to support their families. Employers who wrongly believe they can disregard the law ignore the reality that they will face significant consequences when their illegal actions are discovered,” said Wage and Hour Division District Director Jose Vazquez-Fernandez in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.
“Grocery industry workers are among the lowest paid in the Virgin Islands and across the U.S. The U.S. Department of Labor remains committed to making sure these valuable and vulnerable workers receive the wages they earn,” he said.
“The U.S. Department of Labor will use all available enforcement tools at its disposal, including litigation, when employers wrongly characterize employees as ‘managers’ and fail to pay them overtime as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act,” said Regional Solicitor of Labor Jeffrey S. Rogoff in New York. “The resolution of this case shows grocers and other employers that not complying with federal wage law can lead to legal action with costly consequences.”
The division’s Caribbean District Office in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, conducted the investigation. Senior trial attorney David J. Rutenberg of the department’s Office of the Solicitor in New York litigated the case.
Alkhatib and Bockino were represented by Michael L. Sheesley on St. Thomas, Lisa Michelle Komives of Dudley Topper & Feuerzeig on St. Croix, and Yohana M. Manning on St. Croix.
The FLSA requires that most employees in the U.S. be paid at least the federal minimum wage for all hours worked and overtime pay at not less than time and one-half the required rate of pay for all hours worked over 40 in a workweek.
The Wage and Hour Division has a search tool for those who think they may be owed back wages collected by the division. Employers and workers can call the division confidentially with questions regardless of where they are from. The department can speak with callers confidentially in more than 200 languages through the agency’s toll-free helpline at 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243). Download the agency’s new Timesheet App for i-OS and Android devices — also available in Spanish — to ensure hours and pay are accurate.