US suing Tulsa restaurant chain over unpaid wages

TULSA, Okla. -- The Department of Labor announced Thursday it is suing a Tulsa-area restaurant chain over nearly $1 million in unpaid wages it alleges the business owes to more than 220 employees.

The lawsuit was filed earlier this week in Tulsa federal court and claims El Tequila LLC, a Mexican restaurant chain with four locations, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by not paying employees _ kitchen and wait staff, hosts and bussers _ overtime and minimum wages and not keeping proper records. The suit seeks the back wages, a federal order prohibiting future violations of the law and court costs.

The 10-page complaint, five of which list the names of the workers owed back compensation, also names restaurant chain owner Carlos Aguirre as a defendant. A manager at one of the locations said Aguirre was out of town Thursday afternoon and unavailable to comment. It was not immediately clear in court records if Aguirre had an attorney.

The department suggested in the lawsuit that more employees may be owed money.

"The restaurant industry employs some of our country's lowest-paid, most vulnerable workers," Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis said in a statement Thursday. "When violations of the FLSA are discovered, the Labor Department will take appropriate action to ensure workers receive the wages they have earned and to which they are legally entitled."

The investigation, which dates back to October 2009, found that some employees who worked as many as 72 hours a week were paid a fixed salary instead of overtime for working more than 40 hours. The department also found that wait staff were required to hand over their tips to management at the end of every shift, and doing so sometimes caused their pay to fall below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Federal labor law requires employees to be paid at least the minimum wage for all hours worked, plus time and one-half of their regular rates for hours worked beyond 40 in a week, according to the department.

The restaurant has two locations in Tulsa and two more in the city's suburbs of Owasso and Broken Arrow. Investigators found labor violations at all four locations, according to the department.