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March 15, 2011

Upper Crust faces US immigration investigation

Immigration officials are investigating whether Upper Crust Pizzeria harbored and exploited illegal immigrant workers, the second federal inquiry into the restaurant chain, according to several former employees with direct knowledge of the new investigation.

The scrutiny by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, is the latest problem for Upper Crust, which also is contending with organized boycotts and the departure of at least three store managers following a December Boston Globe story in which some former employees alleged the company routinely took advantage of Brazilian workers by underpaying them for long workweeks.

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They said Upper Crust relied on low-paid illegal laborers from a small town in Brazil to expand the chain to 18 restaurants over the past decade.

In addition to the immigration investigation, a US Department of Labor inquiry into Upper Crust’s wage practices has been underway for several months. Labor Department officials are looking into allegations that the Boston restaurant chain rescinded thousands of dollars in back overtime wages the agency required Upper Crust to pay employees in 2009.

When asked for a comment on the reported investigation, Chuck Jackson, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which operates under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security, said, “ICE has no information available for you.”

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And David Berman, a lawyer representing Upper Crust, said the Boston chain does not know of any such investigation.

Local activists also have launched boycotts to protest what they say is Upper Crust’s mistreatment of workers.

Massachusetts Jobs With Justice, a coalition of labor, community, faith, and student organizations, is coordinating demonstrations scheduled to be held outside the chain’s restaurants over the next two weeks, according to Russ Davis, the coalition’s executive director.

”We want to help educate the public so that diners know what is going on and employers realize there is a consequence to exploiting workers,” Davis said.

Berman said boycotts of the restaurants are misguided. He characterized the allegations against Upper Crust as “false, malicious, and defamatory,” and said, “we regret that anyone has seen fit to refrain from patronizing Upper Crust” because of the reports.

Last month, more than 60 student groups at Harvard University joined together to boycott Upper Crust restaurants.

”We do not condone employment practices that violate the rights of workers,” said Claire Valentin, president of the Harvard Immigration Project. “We believe that substandard wages, denial of labor and employment rights, and the exploitation of immigrant labor undermine working conditions for all American and immigrant workers.”

Federal immigration officials began examining Upper Crust earlier this year, according to the former workers who requested anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

”I talked to them,” said one of the former workers. The immigration department “is looking at how the employees got here, whether Upper Crust is giving them housing, and the overall arrangement.”

In December, the Globe reported that more than 80 men from Marilac, an impoverished Brazilian village, over the years made their way to Boston, risking deportation and even death, for the promise of a job at an Upper Crust restaurant. The company allegedly depended on the pipeline of cheap labor to staff kitchens and deliver pizzas. Upper Crust also set up an apartment for some Brazilian employees near its Hingham location.

The relationship between Upper Crust and the Brazilian workers soured over time as the company grew larger.

Some ex-employees have accused Upper Crust founder Jordan Tobins of taking back thousands of dollars in back-overtime wages that were ordered by the US Department of Labor after its 2009 investigation.

The Boston-based pizza company also is being examined by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and is named as a defendant in two lawsuits filed by former workers that accuse the company of wage violations.

In one of the suits, two former cooks claim they were fired after complaining that Upper Crust deducted thousands of dollars from their checks to recoup overtime payments.

Upper Crust, in previous Globe stories, acknowledged it had made mistakes in its overtime payment practices, but said the company has resolved those issues.

The pizza chain has repeatedly denied accusations that it exploited workers.

Publicity about Upper Crust’s alleged labor practices appears to be taking a toll on its business. Sales declined by nearly 20 percent in December, according to several former store managers who recently left the company.

As a result, Upper Crust drastically slashed its payroll, they said, and forced the managers - who do not receive overtime - to work double shifts and upwards of 60 hours a week.

The former managers said they requested anonymity because they are worried speaking publicly might hurt their ability to find new jobs.

Berman, Upper Crust’s lawyer, said sales during December, January, and February were “in line with the same period in prior years.”

But he also added, “Any diminution is almost certainly due to the weather this past winter.”

Berman said no one was asked to work double shifts, “nor was payroll at any store drastically cut. We recognize that changes of personnel are a fact of life in the restaurant business and wish these former managers well.”

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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