FOUR FORMER EMPLOYEES CLAIM Paseo Caribbean Food, Inc. engaged in wage theft, denial of breaks, and racially-motivated mistreatment. Paseo Caribbean Food, Inc. denies the allegations.
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  • FOUR FORMER EMPLOYEES CLAIM Paseo Caribbean Food Inc. engaged in wage theft, denial of breaks, and racially motivated mistreatment. Paseo Caribbean Food Inc. denies the allegations.

Seattle sandwich lovers—that's everyone, right?—are reeling from the abrupt closure of Paseo, the deeply loved Caribbean restaurant with locations in Fremont and Ballard. But there are some who aren't shedding many tears:

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The truth is we don't know why Paseo closed. We couldn't get through when we gave them a call, and employees quoted so far in the media have been tight-lipped about the reasons.

But we do know, thanks to a court filing unearthed by Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, that in early September four former Paseo workers filed a lawsuit against Paseo Caribbean Food Inc. and its owner, "Lorenzo Lorenzo." The suit accuses Paseo and its owners of wage theft, denial of breaks, and racially motivated mistreatment.

We also know that Paseo Caribbean Food Inc. denies all the allegations, according to documents it filed in King County Superior Court on September 26. If the case continues on its current schedule, it won't go to trial until October of next year.

In their court filing, the four former employees allege that as Hispanic-Americans, they were "treated differently" from non-Hispanic employees. As an example of this, they say a manager told them that he was "told he [was] supposed to be hard on you guys." The plaintiffs say they were discouraged from seeking medical treatment when injured on the job, were often required to work shifts longer than twelve hours, were not provided with one-hour breaks mandated by labor laws, and were denied overtime wages.

They complained about these conditions, but, their lawsuit says, they were summarily fired on March 13, 2014, without explanation.

In its response to the former employees' lawsuit, Paseo Caribbean Food Inc. offers a blanket denial of the allegations and asked that the lawsuit be "dismissed with prejudice." It didn't offer great detail in its responses to the former employees' specific allegations. But on the question of pay, it said the employees agreed to a tip-sharing agreement that netted them an hourly pay rate "far in excess of the minimum wage," and that they were adequately compensated. The response from Paseo Caribbean Food Inc. also says all four former employees were fired for cause, "including but not limited to, unsatisfactory job performance, abusive language, and threatening other employees."

Furthermore, Paseo Caribbean Food argues, the restaurant took reasonable steps to prevent and "correct promptly" any alleged workplace discrimination. The four individuals who sued were "at-will" employees, the response says, meaning they could be fired at the drop of the hat.

Paseo's attorney didn't respond to an e-mail seeking comment. Trevor Osbourne, the attorney for the plaintiffs, did. But except for expressing confidence in his clients' position, he said he'd prefer to let the lawsuit speak for itself. I asked how long his clients had worked for Paseo and about their immigration status, but he said he wasn't ready to release that information. He also said Paseo was made aware of the claims back in April.

How often are lawsuits like this successful? It's hard to know. Prior to 2006 in Washington State, filing a lawsuit was the only recourse workers had to address wage theft violations. Now, workers can complain to the state's Department of Labor and Industries. But that agency is completely overwhelmed.

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In 2012, according to a national study, workers recovered $1 billion in lost wages through a combination of lawsuits and complaints to regulators, according to the Economic Policy Institute. But that's out of an estimated $50 billion stolen from low-wage workers per year, according to one of the study's authors.

All of which returns us to the question of how effectively Seattle will enforce its new $15 minimum wage law. "The only other city with a city office of labor standards and community contracts, San Francisco, has a budget of $3.7 million, with nearly $500,000 in community contracts," said a report released last month by the National Employment Law Project. "Seattle should devote more funding to both."

Mayor Ed Murray has proposed a $715,000 budget for a similar office in Seattle next year.