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Payment problems haunt employees at the Curry Leaf — and show weaknesses in the system 

Dropping the checks

For DeAnna and Isaiah King, it was a simple decision to move from Owensboro, Ky., to the foot of the Rocky Mountains. "We had good friends here, and we were just looking for something different," DeAnna says. "We vacationed here and really liked it."

Both in their 30s, the pair came to Colorado Springs early in the summer, and quickly found employment. Isaiah took on three part-time jobs, while DeAnna picked up some extra hours in a restaurant while she waited to start a job at Everest College. Meanwhile, the couple tried to rent a house.

Again, "tried." Here's a voicemail Isaiah first left the Indy in early July: "My wife went to work at the Curry Leaf restaurant in downtown," he says in a light Southern drawl. "She has been trying for a couple weeks now to get paid for work that was done ... We're supposed to be moving into a house on Friday."

Isaiah says to do so, they needed proof of employment, as well as around $300 in yet-to-be-paid wages. Neither, they say, was forthcoming from Lana Hillstrom's popular Sri Lankan restaurant.

Litigation and lawsuits

The Independent contacted Hillstrom multiple times, but after initially speaking with us once by phone in July, she failed to return follow-up calls. When we went to her Tejon Street restaurant to talk with her, she refused to answer questions and threatened to sue over any story we'd print.

Meanwhile, over the course of a two-month-long look at the restaurant, we found that at least four other former employees indeed had similar stories. Together they provided a good look at how vulnerable workers in this industry can be, and how little recourse there is even when they decide to fight back.

A former Curry Leaf cook, 31-year-old Priscilla Lopez, told us of paychecks promised, sporadically delivered, and occasionally returned by the cashing bank for insufficient funds. Lopez eventually grew so frustrated that she took to papering Tejon Street with fliers announcing, "The Curry Leaf Restaurant owned by Lana Joseph-Hillstrom DOES NOT PAY her employees!!!!!"

Gabrielle Levine, a 22-year-old former server who worked at the restaurant for roughly six months, says not only were paychecks irregular, but records were hard to track. "We had this meeting once and I compared with her," she says. "I was like, 'Listen, I've written all of this stuff down: You owe me 'X' amount of money.' And she was like, 'Oh no, I've paid you this, this, this and this. Here's a million different papers all scrambled up.'"

Documents obtained by the Independent do show several cases of checks being returned for insufficient funds, including a $430 check to Lopez, as well as a check for $88.12 made out to the Colorado Department of Labor, which was sent to a debt collection attorney. Additional court records reveal that at least eight additional lawsuits have been filed against Hillstrom since 2009 for monies owed, including one filed Jan. 30, 2012 by the owner of the building at 26 S. Wahsatch Ave., the restaurant's former location, for $14,846.77 in past-due rent and lease charges.

Around that same time, Hillstrom made the move over to her current location at 321 N. Tejon St. However, she left still owing money to J.J. Grueter, owner of the next-door Triple Nickel Tavern, for kitchen machinery.

"I let her slide on the payments cause I wasn't using the equipmen[t]," he writes in an e-mail. "But then she pulled a move out on the middle [of] the night and too[k] all my stuff." Grueter sued the Curry Leaf in September of last year, winning by default when the owner failed to show in court. He says he took the order, along with two sheriff's deputies, and pulled his equipment out of her kitchen in the middle of the day.

Former employee Nathan Levin watched the seizure happen, and later joined the coterie of litigants after he left the restaurant in May. He sued Hillstrom a month ago for $1,400 in unpaid wages, overtime and bank fees from returned checks.

"After repeated attempts by me to collect my pay, she filed a harassment complaint against me and banned me from the restaurant with the threat of trespassing," reads a copy of the suit, which Levin also won by default after Hillstrom failed to appear in court.

Gets messy

The Colorado Springs Police Department says that since Sept. 10, 2012, officers have responded to 11 calls for service at the Curry Leaf. Reasons cited include harassment, threats, disturbance, assault and trespassing.

Court records also show that the owner has four times requested a civil protection order against former employees, including her sister Lara Linander in 2009, with the most recent filing coming Feb. 21, 2012 against Michael Brauburger. "I am scared for my life & employee[s] at Curry Leaf Restaurant," Hillstrom wrote. The request involving Brauburger was denied.

In our sole phone interview, Hillstrom said she has "honored all [her] employees" with regard to their pay, and that she "seems to find the wrong people" to work for her. As far as her relationship with Levin: "I have pressed charges, two of them, because of sexual harassment," she said in July. "And Nathan was an awesome employee at the beginning; he started off really great, but he became obsessed with me. That was the beginning of all of it."

For his part, Levin denies any relationship outside of a professional one and, that either way, it never made much of a difference financially. "I went to court — I have some issues, myself, with court and a DUI — and I couldn't pay the fines because she wasn't paying me on time."

In any case, though signs would seem to indicate a problem in cash flow, the restaurant owner says her "husband makes money — I don't even need to work." After checking records at the city, state and federal level, the Indy could find no bankruptcy filings, and learned that payroll and sales taxes are current.

Who will help?

The latter's little comfort to Lopez, the former cook who says she had her utilities turned off at the end of July due to nonpayment, apparently prompting a short-lived shoving match with Hillstrom in the restaurant's dining room. "Parties involved had conflicting statements and no probable cause was developed for an arrest," reads a report from the responding officer. "They were encouraged to resolve their civil issue in Small Claims Court."

And that seems to be almost the only place to find justice. You can petition the state Department of Labor, but it's fairly easily put off, as the response to Levin's complaint about the Curry Leaf shows. "This employer has been sent a copy of the Colorado Wage Act, The Colorado Minimum Wage Order #29 and still has not responded to any attempts to contact them to begin the mediation process," reads a copy of the July 17 letter given to the Indy. "They are on file in this office as 'Willfully Non Compliant.' This office cannot represent you further in collecting wages."

The problem is the same there as it is everywhere, says Denver attorney Kyle Bachus, whose firm Bachus & Schanker specializes in employment-law violations, among other areas. "Like all other departments in state government, [the Department of Labor is] underfunded and they are [under-]staffed," he says, "and they don't have a lot of teeth to be able to pursue every claim in the civil courts."

A spokesman emphasizes that the department actually has recovered more than $3 million, cumulatively, in unpaid wages in the last three years. But the hit-and-miss nature of each complaint goes to highlight the weak position held by your average small-business employee.

"It is absolutely true that you are more vulnerable to not being paid in a small community business, because federal law simply doesn't protect you unless the business grosses over $500,000 a year," Bachus says. "So [my firm has] fewer people we can help in that scenario, but actually we probably get more calls from that segment than we do from others, because they're the ones that get paychecks missed, get situations where, 'I was going to pay you overtime, but I'm not going to now.'

"And that happens less frequently with larger companies, and the reason it happens less frequently is because those companies have obligations under federal law. And it's the deterrent effect of the [Fair Labor Standards Act] that makes those larger companies do the right thing for their employees."

But even the modest protections available at the highest level are under siege. Look at the National Restaurant Association, a group with nearly 500,000 foodservice establishments nationwide. According to the independent Center for Responsive Politics, the other NRA "opposes giving restaurant owners the burden of enforcing tip reporting laws. The association is also active in general business-related issues: It was part of the business-backed Health Benefits Coalition that opposed the Patients' Bill of Rights; it supports class action reform as a way to reduce what it calls frivolous lawsuits; and it opposes increases in the minimum wage."

In the pursuit of these goals, last year the association spent $2.7 million lobbying Congress. UNITE HERE, a large labor union representing hotel, casino and food-service workers, spent $110,800.

Doing it wrong

For the Curry Leaf's former workers, none of that is the point — or, at least, not the most important one. Lopez says she was threatened with a restraining order, so she stopped distributing the fliers, and still has not been paid. Levin also is working toward collecting on his successful suit, still needing to file a writ of garnishment and hire a process server, among other steps.

But in our one conversation, Hillstrom maintained the only thing that's gone wrong at the restaurant is who works there.

"I've been hiring people that have not been employed for so long, and when they are hired they're in dire need: They don't have three dollars to their name," she said. "And I was not aware of that when I hired. I'm equal opportunity ... [But] from now on, starting next week, they're gonna get a background check right away, and I'm hiring that way."

She added, "I'm coming to the point where it's a passion — I love doing this — but is it worth all of this hassle, you know what I mean?"

Linda Doss says her side of the fight certainly was worth it. The 62-year-old semi-former employee says she called the 4th Judicial District Attorney's office, as well as the Internal Revenue Service, over back payment that was finally given. She refuses to quit, she says, in order to make the restaurant fire her and make her eligible for unemployment benefits.

"[Hillstrom] is going out of her way to get current with as many people as she can, because she knows shit's about to come down on her," Doss said when we talked in mid-July. "And I just find that appalling, because she will do it to the new people that are in there; she'll do it to the new chef, she'll do it to the new kid that's waiting tables."

As for the Kings, DeAnna writes in an email that the financial unknowns eventually forced the couple to find a different place to live in central Colorado Springs.

"We ended up finding a better house than what we were looking at, [actually]," she writes, adding: "I was one of the lucky employees at the Curry Leaf. I have a wonderful husband who can support us. Most of the people there did not have that and were on their own, paying the bills the best they could."

bryce@csindy.com

Scope it out

Those looking to check out a prospective employer in the hopes of avoiding similar situations have a few options, but only a few.

• First, Google everybody. Put the restaurant's full name and the city it's in within quotes, then search in the "News" tab. If nothing comes up, click the "Search tools" button, select "Archives" in the drop-down menu and see what comes back.

• Colorado Springs' Craigslist page can be a source of information — plug the business' name into the left-hand search bar and look in "community" or "rants and raves" — but expect a lot of sound and fury.

• Check the restaurant's Facebook page. This is not a great tool, since page owners can delete any comment, but it's worth a shot.

• Most effective, though costing the most time and money, is to check court records. You can get case summaries at cocourts.com, but it really only gives you the who, when and general what of the litigation. (And each search is $5.) To find out further details, you'll need to grab the case number and head to the records section in the basement at the El Paso County Combined Court, 270 S. Tejon St.

— Bryce Crawford

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