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Local Mexican restaurant chain to pay $58,000 in back wages

The owners of El Rancho Grande, a regional Mexican restaurant chain with more than a dozen restaurants across southwest Ohio, have agreed to pay more than $58,000 in back wages to 171 employees as part of a negotiated settlement to a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Labor, according to documents filed this week in U.S. District Court in Dayton.

The labor department filed the lawsuit in September 2012, accusing El Rancho Grande’s owners of failing to pay minimum wage and overtime to employees at three El Rancho Grande restaurants, including one at 7500 Poe Ave. in Vandalia. The original lawsuit claimed that as much as $285,000 in back wages was owed to the employees, but under the terms of the settlement, the restaurant chain will pay a total of $58,710 to the affected employees without admitting to any of the lawsuit’s allegations. The awards range from about $25 to $2,350 per employee.

Gary Rodriguez, president of operations for El Rancho Grande, said this morning that the company provided department of labor attorneys with time sheets and other documentation refuting the allegations in the lawsuit. The restaurant chain’s owners agreed to settle the lawsuit for the significantly lower amount than the labor department originally sought to avoid escalating legal fees and to put the lawsuit behind them, Rodriguez said.

Neither U.S. Department of Labor attorney Sandra B. Kramer and nor department spokeswoman Rhonda Burke could be reached for comment because they were not in their offices due to the federal government shutdown.

This is the second time in 11 years that El Rancho Grande has faced similar accusations of violations of the Wage and Hour provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The chain’s owners faced a similar allegation following a 2002 labor department investigation and ended up paying $25,218 in back wages to seven employees of what was then El Rancho Grande’s Miller Lane restaurant in Butler Twp., according to labor department officials.

“Low-wage workers such as restaurant servers and kitchen staff are far too often taken advantage of because they are reluctant to question employers about their pay and benefits,” George Victory, district director of the labor department’s wage and hour division in Columbus, said in a news release when the most recent El Rancho Grande lawsuit was filed. “We are committed to ensuring that all workers receive their rightful wages and benefits.”

Columbus attorney Tim Owens, who represents El Rancho Grande and its owners, told the Dayton Daily News last year that the restaurant chain cooperated with the investigation, turning over records and providing federal investigators access to employees. Owens accused the labor department’s wage-and-hour division that conducted the El Rancho Grande investigation of unfairly targeting the restaurant industry.

El Rancho Grande operates restaurants in Washington Twp., Fairborn, West Carrollton, Vandalia and Middletown in addition to six locations in the Cincinnati area. It is a few weeks away from opening a new location on Wilmington Pike in Kettering, and is at least six months away from opening another new location at Brown and Stewart streets near the University of Dayton. Three of the chain’s restaurants — in Vandalia, Sharonville and one in Cincinnati — were accused in the lawsuit.

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