A Los Angeles recycling business accused of violating federal minimum wage and overtime rules, and pressuring workers to lie to government investigators, has agreed to pay more than $74,000 in back wages and damages to 13 employees in a settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor.

In a consent agreement filed this week in federal court in Los Angeles, Alkanan, Inc., and an owner of the firm, Karim Ameri, neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing. Ameri declined to comment on the settlement.

A bottle-and-can redemption center operated by Recycling Innovations in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles (Photo by Stuart Silverstein).

A bottle-and-can redemption center operated by Recycling Innovations in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles (Photo by Stuart Silverstein).

As reported by FairWarning, federal authorities in December obtained a restraining order to bar the firm from pressuring workers to mislead investigators, or threatening to report them to immigration authorities if they coooperated with the probe. According to a court document, Ameri “threatened to break an employee’s arm”, though an accountant for the business later told labor officials that Ameri got tripped up by language barriers and didn’t mean it as a threat of violence. Under the names Recycling Innovations and Valley Recycling, Alkanan operates seven bottle-and-can redemption centers in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles.

“We are pleased to have reached a resolution in this case that will provide employees with the wages they worked hard to earn,” said Ruben Rosalez, regional administrator for the Wage and Hour Division’s western region, in a prepared statement. “We will use all available tools, including litigation,…to make sure workers and law-abiding employers are protected.”

When the investigation began last fall, the company was paying workers $55 to $65 per day to put in 10 hour days, six days a week, according to court papers and interviews. As a result, their pay fell below the California minimum wage of $8 per hour, as well as the federal minimum of $7.25. Nor were they paid at least time-and-a-half for overtime hours.

The investigation was triggered by a complaint to the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division by Antonio Bernabe, a labor advocate and senior organizer for a group known as CHIRLA, or Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Bernabe said he brought the complaint because the company’s Spanish-speaking employees were afraid to confront their boss about alleged wage violations.

For low-wage immigrant workers, “the biggest enemy is the fear,” Bernabe said. He described the settlement as “a big win for labor rights,” but expressed disappointment that the company will be given 20 months to pay in full. When employers cheat workers of their pay, Bernabe said, they should “have to pay right away.”

According to an exhibit filed in court, labor officials went back three years in calculating underpaid wages, the maximum time allowed by federal law. Payments to individual workers are to range from $3,311.45 to $8,509.43, depending on how long they have worked for the company. Alkanan also agreed to pay the Labor Department $3,014.77 in civil penalties.