U.S. Department of Labor targets local restaurants

by Carolyn Sackariason, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

The U.S. Department of Labor was in the Aspen area in recent weeks investigating dozens of businesses, mostly restaurants, for potential violations related to overtime pay, record keeping and hourly wages.
 
Several employees or proprietors of Aspen businesses confirmed that officials from the division of hours and wages of the U.S. Department of Labor contacted them, asking to review employment and payroll records. Some businesses’ employees were interviewed by investigators.
 
Some restaurants were reportedly found to be violating federal laws and were ordered to pay thousands of dollars, said sources familiar with the probe.
 
Juan J. Rodriguez, deputy regional director of the office of public affairs for the federal agency, refused to answer any questions regarding the investigation, stating in an email in response to several questions posed by the Aspen Daily News that, “The Department of Labor cannot discuss any current wage and hour division law enforcement investigations in Aspen.”
 
Craig Cordts-Pearce, who owns five Aspen restaurants, confirmed that agency officials asked for the last two years worth of records at his businesses, and inquired about employees’ hours, overtime pay and minimum wages.
 
Cordts-Pearce complied with the requests, and said he was found in compliance.
 
“Basically they were making sure employees were taken care of,” he said.
 
Some businesses said they were notified in advance of the visit; others were not.
 
Olivier Mottier, owner of Jour de Fête, said he was contacted days before investigators showed up in his restaurant. He provided them with payroll records and said his employees were interviewed, although he didn’t know the substance of the conversations. He said investigators were satisfied with what they were provided and the probe of his business stopped after the visit.
 
Tommy Tollesson, owner of Elevation, confirmed that agency officials made a visit to his business but declined to comment further, other than to say investigators told him they’d get back to him within a week or a month.
 
Jimmy’s An American Restaurant and Bar and the Hotel Jerome also were paid by a visit by the labor department. Representatives from both establishments declined to comment.
 
It’s unclear what spurred the investigations, but often the division of hours and wages acts after a complaint is initiated.
 
The division conducts investigations for a number of reasons, all having to do with enforcement of the laws and assuring an employer’s compliance. The division does not typically disclose the reason for an investigation, according to the department of labor’s website.
 
The division also selects certain types of businesses to investigate, often in low-wage industries because of high rates of violations or egregious infractions, and the employment of vulnerable workers. Occasionally, a number of businesses in a specific geographic area will be examined, according to the website.
 
In many instances, the division of hours and wages will advise an employer prior an inquiry. However, the investigator has latitude to show up unannounced in many cases in order to directly observe normal business operations and develop factual information quickly, according to the website.
 
An investigation consists of examining records, including an employer’s annual dollar volume of business transactions, payroll and time records. Investigators may take notes, or make transcriptions or photocopies.
 
Interviews with certain employees conducted in private can be done to verify the employer’s payroll and time records, identify workers’ particular duties to decide which exemptions apply, if any, and to confirm that minors are legally employed. Interviews are normally conducted on the employer’s premises.
 
When all the fact-finding steps have been completed, the investigator will ask to meet with the employer or a representative of the firm who has authority to take corrective actions if violations have occurred. The employer will be told whether violations have occurred and, if so, what they are and how to correct them. If back wages are owed to employees because of minimum wage or overtime violations, the investigator will request payment of back wages and may ask the employer to compute the amounts due. Employers have a right to appeal the labor department’s findings.
 
Meanwhile, at the same time the department of labor was here, so was the Colorado Department of Revenue’s liquor enforcement division, which was conducting an undercover sting to see if any restaurants, bars or stores served alcohol or sold tobacco to underage individuals.
 
Ro Silva, spokesperson for the department of revenue, confirmed that the liquor enforcement division was in the Aspen area but preliminary findings regarding violations have not been processed yet.
 
“These are routine compliance checks,” she noted.
 
The division was here earlier this month as well — 36 establishments were contacted on either Feb. 1 or Feb. 7. Four of them failed the test and served alcohol to a minor. The division will typically cite the business and order them to pay a fine.


sack@aspendailynews.com