CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—The crowd was out the door of The Just Crust this Saturday during its grand opening. Cambridge residents and their friends gathered to try free pizza and celebrate the worker-owned restaurant replacing a branch of Upper Crust Pizza – a small chain plagued by corruption, wage theft and other labor violations.
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) joined Crust owner Shannon Liss-Riordan and workers for the ribbon cutting. Warren said, “This is such a powerful moment. It’s a very tangible reminder that workers are a critical part of everything we build in this country. In treating workers well – it’s what makes us all sincere.”
This was in reference to the ordeal that many workers had been through over the past few years while working for Upper Crust. The chain filed for bankruptcy last October, resulting in one hundred and forty workers across the Boston area remaining home without pay for a month to many months. The company closed 10 of its 16 locations indefinitely on November 13th.
Liss-Riordan bid and purchased the Brattle Street location at auction in December, investing $400,000 of her and her husband’s money in the endeavor. More than half of the 12 employees are former Upper Crust workers, some immigrants who were exploited. She said, “We’re all praying immigration reform will go through this year so we can hire back more former workers, including named plaintiffs in this case.” Many of these are undocumented workers.
A quarter of the profits will go into a pool that will be portioned out to employees on a monthly or quarterly basis. Employees who have worked at The Just Crust for six months will be eligible. There will be a committee of elected employees who will see how much will be paid out in profit, and how much will be used for the operations of the restaurant.
When asked if workers are being paid minimum wage, Operations Manager Patrick Joyce said, “Absolutely not. We’re well above minimum wage, especially for starting employees. Our cashiers are coming in at least three dollars an hour more than they would be working somewhere else.” Workers will also be eligible for health insurance, the details of which are still being ironed out. Joyce continued, “We’re working with ROC United, a new restaurant workers association, in NYC to help us. I’m going to be down in DC lobbying for a new minimum wage bill in a couple of weeks too.”
According to court records, Upper Crust owes workers from its multiple locations about $850,000 in back wages and damages. A second federal investigation of pay practices found that Upper Crust violated minimum-wage and overtime laws and failed to pay 67 employees roughly $425,000 from 2009-2011.
Liss-Riordan, also the attorney handling the class action suit against Upper Crust, is representing 121 workers for $342,000 owed to them. The estimate of the damages from the original case includes money that was allegedly extorted from workers, back wages, and emotional damages from working 70 hour work weeks, often below minimum wage with no overtime. All of the workers involved had their employment terminated by Upper Crust. The damages are estimated at over two million dollars. A court date was set for August, but has been delayed until December. None of the lead plaintiffs are able to work at The Just Crust, due to undocumented status. Liss-Riordan said, “We would love to hire them back, which we would do when/if immigration reform goes through later this year.”
Joyce, a former manager at a former Upper Crust was one of the whistleblowers that called the US Department of Labor on alleged unlawful labor practices on the part of the Upper Crust. He said, “I was with them for about six years before I ratted them out. I testified before the grand jury for Carmen Ortiz’s case, which was dropped, and I have no idea why …. My own lawsuit is based on retaliation and defamation, and some other stuff. The owner, Jordan Tobins has threatened to ruin my life … that’s part of my lawsuit against Upper Crust, and he’s personally named in my lawsuit. I have a separate lawsuit from the class action, which Shannon is helping me manage.”
Tobins could not be reached for comment.
After Liss-Riordan bought the location out of bankruptcy she asked Joyce to come on as an advisor to work on the opening of The Just Crust. He said, “As time wore on, she asked if I was willing to come on full time and partner up.”
The good overshadowed the bad on Saturday. Children ran behind stools, teenagers and adults scrambled to grab free slices, and every worker had a smile on their face.
Hernan Matamoros, The Just Crust’s new marketing manager and assistant general manager, is excited to be working for the new restaurant. He previously worked for the Upper Crust in Fenway, and joined Patrick Joyce in alerting the Department of Labor on the situation at the chain as a whistleblower. Matamoros is assisting in managing the restaurant, and started a Twitter account (@thejustcrust) for the restaurant.
Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung was present at the opening, along with State Senator Sal DiDomenico. Future candidate for Cambridge City Council Jefferson Smith was also there. He said, “I’ve tried the pizza- the cheese, as well as the margarita pizza, it was delicious.” On the Upper Crust auction, Smith said, “I think it’s a fantastic social justice story. His is one of the best things to come out of that settlement. Honestly, looking back at what happened to these workers, and now, having something like this to celebrate, is absolutely great.”
The Just Crust is open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday – Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. for the rest of the week. The restaurant will be serving locally brewed beer, and has included local foods into its mission. The Just Crust menu include sauce made from organic tomatoes grown and harvested by Valicenti Organico in Hollis, New Hampshire, crust made out of Hard Red Winter flour from Four Star Farms of Northfield, Massachusetts, and cured prosciutto from Vermont Smoke and Cure. Joyce added, “There’s this whole movement to have sustainable food, and we want to do local foods, but we also want to be a sustainable employer, where people can survive off the wages they make.”
Originally published by Open Media Boston. Reprinted with permission.