"We're not saints," responded Marathon partner Cary Borish, son of founders Jay and Sheryl Borish.
But, he said, when a restaurant company operates seven restaurants and a catering business, employs 150, and has a high turnover rate, foul-ups in pay are inevitable. When there are complaints, he said, "we resolve our problems."
The restaurant chain, which built its reputation on high-quality meals at reasonable prices, has also built a case history at the Labor Department with complaints of wage violations dating to 1990, when the company operated a luncheonette in the Roosevelt Mall in Northeast Philadelphia.
Treating workers well and paying them fairly is key to maintaining Marathon's reputation, Borish said. "Any aggravation over $100, or $200 or even $300, is not worth it to us. I just say, 'Cut the check.' "
Unfortunately, he said, a high-visibility business such as Marathon's is vulnerable to complaints from employees upset about being fired. Borish said complaints about discrimination against Latinos were groundless: "Many of them are people I consider my friends."
The investigation by the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division in Philadelphia involved 12 workers who allegedly were not paid for their work; of them, six were not paid overtime. Also, Marathon did not present proper payroll records to investigators, the Labor Department said. Investigators audited pay practices from May 2003 to May 2005.
Most of the workers who were not paid overtime were Mexican kitchen workers, said Stewart Bostic, who heads the Wage and Hour Division in the city.
Marathon Grill has agreed to pay $20,941 in back wages and promised to comply with the law, the Labor Department said.
"When we return in the future, we expect that we will find that they are doing what they are supposed to do," Bostic said.
Even as the Department of Labor was conducting the investigation, there were five similar complaints filed. And less than a week after it closed its investigation in May, a worker complained that he did not receive $412, his pay for his last two weeks of work, according to Labor Department records.
In all cases, Marathon agreed to pay back wages, Labor Department spokeswoman Lenore Uddyback-Fortson said.
"We've seen a pattern of them cheating employees out of their last paychecks - nickel and diming their way to higher profits," said Nadia Hewka, the Community Legal Services lawyer who filed the EEOC complaint. Her nonprofit agency represents low-income clients.
Some employees who quit or are fired return two or three times to the restaurant to collect their checks but are turned away, she said. "They are counting on people giving up."
And, she said, "in my experience, the workers who were not paid overtime were always the Latinos." They were also the ones, she said, who were too scared to file public complaints.
Employment-law violations are common in the restaurant business, experts say, partly because the workforce tends to be young, inexperienced, uneducated, foreign and, therefore, not aware of employment laws.
Also common, Bostic said, is the reluctance of employees to complain because they fear reprisal - especially being fired or deported - if there are immigration issues.
Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or firstname.lastname@example.org.