Ex-Hot and Crusty Workers Win Battle Uptown, but Still Fighting Downtown

14th Street Pizza Bagel CafeDaniel Maurer

The new owners of a former Hot and Crusty on 63rd Street have agreed to rehire employees who picketed the store this summer. But the battle isn’t over at a former Hot and Crusty on 14th Street, where at least one worker claims management continues to threaten employees.

In May, 13 workers at a Hot and Crusty on 63rd Street filed a lawsuit alleging that the bakery’s owners – Paul Pappas, Evangelos Gavalas, and several others – failed to pay overtime or minimum wage, demanded kickbacks, and required deliverymen to buy and repair their own bicycles. (The suit was settled by the end of the summer.)

That same month, workers voted to form a union. In August, the owners announced they were shutting down the store. Employees alleged the closure was retaliatory and began picketing the store on its last day. Their colleagues at Hot and Crusty’s 14th Street location joined them in passing out flyers that alleged, among other things, that one employee was called a “fat idiot” by management.

According to the Hot and Crusty Workers Solidarity Committee, a group who supported the summer strike, the 63rd Street store came under new ownership this fall. Earlier this month, it was announced that the new owners had agreed to recognize the union when they reopen the store in the next weeks. Employees have been assured paid vacation and sick time, pay raises, procedures for addressing grievances and a union hiring hall.

“Labor unions really see this victory as a powerful inspiration for going out and organizing amongst low paid immigrant workers,” said Sándor John, spokesperson for the Solidarity Committee and an adjunct history professor at Hunter College. Mr. John tried unsuccessfully to organize deli workers and grocers in the East Village in 1999 and 2000. “A lot of low-paid workers in the city are going to see that and say, ‘Wow, if they can do that we can do that too,” he said.

Hot and CrustyGreta Minsky A flyer stating workers’ grievances.

But while the uptown store is under new management, workers at the 14th Street store – now called 14th Street Pizza Bagel Cafe – say that Mr. Pappas and Mr. Gavalas are still involved in the downtown location.

Virgilio Aran — president of the Laundry Workers Center, which helped organize the workers at both locations — believes the name change, in June, may have been an attempt to avoid negative associations with the Hot and Crusty brand as workers began to demonstrate.

Workers at 14th Street Pizza Bagel Cafe say they are still being verbally abused. Mr. Gavalas often threatens to fire workers and replace them with cheaper labor, said Felicito Tapia, a deli counterperson: “He tells me, ‘Felix, you are going to be next.’”

The list of grievances goes on: Mr. Tapia said Mr. Gavalas calls the workers “malakas,” a Greek insult (sometimes used casually among friends) and has spoken disrespectfully to a mentally handicapped employee. “He calls him a mental retard,” Mr. Tapia said.

Noel Ramirez, a former employee at 14th Street Pizza Bagel Cafe, told The Local that last March, he fell while working and broke his knee. He claimed that when he tried to return to work a month later, after his stay in the hospital, Mr. Gavalas accused him of stealing money during his night shift and refused to hire him back. “He told me I’m a thief,” he said, adding, “I feel bad because never in my life have they told me that. I work very hard like everybody else to make my money.”

Mr. Ramirez, 43, worked at 14th Street Pizza Bagel Cafe for four years and was among those who said that Mr. Pappas and Mr. Gavalas are still owners there. He believes Mr. Gavalas was looking for reasons to fire him. “I told him, ‘Listen, I think you don’t fire me because of money, I think you fire me because of my knee or because a long time ago you say you want to fire everyone,’” he said.

Mr. Gavalas — also an owner of Tepito, on the same block as 14th Street Pizza Bagel Cafe  — declined to comment when reached by phone. Mr. Pappas, also an owner of Ray’s Pizza Bagel Cafe, did not respond to The Local’s request for comment.

When The Local visited 14th Street Pizza Bagel Cafe to inquire about its ownership, workers directed questions to a manager who said the previous owners had sold the restaurant in May, and that the new owners didn’t own any other businesses. But Mr. Tapia, who witnessed the exchange from his deli post, later told The Local that the anonymous manager was actually Mr. Gavalas, and that he had lied about the sale.

Mr. Tapia is now trying to recruit and organize his colleagues. Though he said he would like to form a union, his priority is getting his fellow employees the same benefits those at 63rd Street will now receive, however he can. Mr. Tapia and Mr. Aran are still strategizing about the best way to do that, whether through a formal agreement with the ownership or legal action.

According to Mr. Aran, some workers were holding weekly protests outside the store before the hurricane, but Mr. Tapia said they felt their demonstrations should be put on hold in light of damage in the East Village.

“When I started the campaign I was scared a lot but now I feel good,” Mr. Tapia said, adding that he didn’t want to leave and seek work elsewhere because he was committed to improving conditions for the employees. “I’ve got to stay and support those guys because we can do it together,” he said.

This is not the first time 14th Street workers have stood up to management. According to Ben Dictor, a lawyer who worked with the 63rd street workers on their lawsuit, 14th Street Pizza Bagel Cafe employees filed a complaint with the Department of Labor in 2010 alleging that they had been denied overtime pay. Mr. Tapia said he and other workers received checks for back wages in January 2012, but after consulting with the Laundry Workers Center, he determined the amount they had been paid was not sufficient.

“This is not just a fight about increasing wages or improving work places, this is a fight about dignity,” Mr. Aran said.