ASTORIA, QUEENS — The owners of two Astoria discount stores systematically underpaid their workers and then engaged in a cover-up scheme by telling employees to lie to federal authorities investigating the stores, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
The two stores, ABC Deals and Pick 99c, are located a few doors apart on the same block on 31st Street between Ditmars Boulevard and 21st Avenue. The family businesses are managed by Mohammed Perwaiz and owned by his two sons, Hassan and Ahmad Perwaiz, according to the DOL.
A federal judge has now intervened in the case, which began in April when the DOL began investigating whether the two stores violated the federal wage law which requires the payment of overtime for more than 40 hours of work per week.
During a visit to stores that month, a manager told investigators that workers were paid 1.5 times their usual rate when working overtime – but most employees only worked three to four days a week, the department said in a statement. filing in court.
The following month, the stores accountant told investigators that the companies did not have payroll records until April, but promised they had started keeping records after the first meeting. A few days later, the accountant gave fraudulent time slips to the DOL, falsely stating that employees only worked from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and that no one worked after 6.30 p.m. on May 25 – although investigators had saw workers at both stores until 8 p.m. that day, authorities said.
On June 16, DOL again met with the Perwaiz family and told them the results of the investigation: that the stores had underpaid employees and violated overtime laws.
But the Perwaizes disputed the findings and a few days later sent the DOL a series of statements they said had been written and signed by employees stating that they worked no more than 40 hours a week and had been paid correctly. In fact, the statements had been written by the Perwaiz family themselves, according to investigators – noting that the typed statements included nearly identical sentences.
Now investigators say Mohammed Perwaiz pressured employees to sign the false statements by getting angry and insisting they do so when workers resisted. He also told employees to lie to the department by saying they wrote the statements, authorities said.
In at least one instance, Mohammed Perwaiz made threatening statements about workers who cooperated with the department’s investigation, the DOL said in its court filing.
Due to the intimidation, employees of ABC Deals and Pick 99c largely refused to take or return phone calls from investigators and expressed fears of retaliation if they cooperated, the department said.
Reached for comment, a lawyer for the Perwaiz family denied the government’s claims, saying the charges against the Perwaizes came entirely from a single employee.
“[The family] has a number of employees who are ready to come forward and say, ‘There was no overtime, we got paid properly,’ attorney Stephen Hans said. “You have a disgruntled camper who says he was working 80 hours a week.”
“Sometimes employees don’t want to talk to the Department of Labor for various reasons,” Hans added. “It shouldn’t be seen as an employer exerting influence over them.”
Claiming that the alleged intimidation was hampering their investigation, the DOL asked a federal judge last week to issue an injunction that would stop the Perwaizes from violating federal wage law, threatening or firing employees, or deterring workers from participating in the investigation — and allowing a DOL representative visit the store and read a statement to workers outlining their rights.
This order was granted the next day by Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall of the Eastern District of New York Court, records show.
“The unlawful employer retaliation and obstruction is a blatant – if ultimately unsuccessful – attempt to deter vulnerable, low-wage workers from cooperating with a legal investigation and depriving them of their rights under the Labor Standards Act. fair labor,” Jorge Alvarez, the district director of the Department of Labor’s wage and hour division, said in a statement.
“The U.S. Department of Labor is undeterred in its commitment to protect workers from such prohibited retaliatory practices.”
A store investigation is underway, the department said.
Update, 10:45 a.m. Thursday: This story has been updated with comments from a lawyer representing Mohammed, Hassan and Ahmad Perwaiz.