Ex-Popeyes franchise owner is fined

State says he failed to pay immigrants

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / July 1, 2010

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A Harvard-educated businessman who cracked the racial barrier to become state transportation secretary in the 1990s has been fined for failing to pay thousands of dollars in wages to immigrant workers at a Popeyes chicken franchise in Boston.

In May, the state attorney general’s office ordered owner Richard L. Taylor and restaurant manager Reba Danastorg to pay $9,748 in wages to five workers at the popular chicken chain in Kenmore Square, which closed a few months ago. The state also fined them a total of $5,000.

The money was owed to cashiers and cooks who worked between August 2009 and January 2010.

The dispute is an embarrassing mark on the career of Taylor, a Republican power-broker who has been outspoken on behalf of minority groups. He now runs a real estate development business and teaches at Suffolk University.

Danastorg is former executive director of the Boston Ten Point Coalition, a group of clergy and lay leaders advocating for black and Latino youths.

Advocates for immigrants said they were stunned by Taylor’s and Danastorg’s failure to pay the workers. The groups called a press conference for today to publicly call on them to make good.

“He’s the owner and he’s responsible for implementing this the right way, and paying the workers. He hasn’t done it,’’ said Patricia Montes, the executive director of Centro Presente, a Somerville nonprofit that helped the immigrant workers file the complaints with the attorney general’s office. “How can this person teach business in one of the most prestigious universities in Boston and be the bad guy exploiting workers? He’s teaching business. He knows about labor laws.’’

The attorney general’s office said Taylor’s side has appealed.

In interviews yesterday, Taylor and Danastorg confirmed that the workers were owed money but that the total amount owed was in dispute. They did not give an explanation for their decision to appeal, and each referred questions about it to the other.

Taylor said he would pay the money the workers are owed. He said he believed the dispute over the wages was being handled by store management.

“From my perspective, there were some misunderstandings,’’ Taylor said. “We’re going to get this resolved. We’ve got to get beyond this.’’

Taylor’s lawyer Aaron Cohen signed an agreement on Taylor’s behalf promising to pay the wages by Feb. 24, but the money never materialized.

Danastorg said she did not sign off on that agreement because she knew they would not meet the deadline. She said the store had suffered a cash-flow problem from September to November 2009 and was unable to pay workers for several weeks.

In late February or early March, Danastorg said, she offered the workers $5,000 for the owed wages, with $3,000 to be paid later as they hammered out the total amount. The workers declined, pressing for the full amount.

In addition to Centro Presente, five to six African-American workers have also complained to the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, a Boston nonprofit, that Taylor failed to pay them wages.

Horace Small, the executive director of the group, said it pained him to criticize Taylor, whom he praised as a “nice guy’’ and an advocate for minority groups. “You never, ever want to go beat up a friend but our work is about integrity,’’ he said. “We have to do our part to make sure that workers are justly compensated.’’

Taylor, a Rhodes Scholar and graduate of the Harvard law and business schools who served as transportation secretary under Governor William F. Weld, said he opened Popeyes in 2007 and largely hired minorities, including those with criminal records who struggled to find work.

He said he paid more than $700,000 in wages, of which the disputed figure is a relatively small amount, and that he left the management to Danastorg and others. But Montes and Claudia Meza, a line cook who estimates she is owed about $2,000, said they spoke to Taylor about it personally. “He knows what happened. Maybe in the beginning he didn’t know, but when he found out he didn’t do anything to resolve the problem,’’ Meza said.

She said she worked for six weeks without full pay, including three weeks where she did not get paid at all. As a result, Meza said, she was unable to send money home to family in Guatemala late last year, and fell behind on her bills here.

Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen said in a statement that it ended its franchise with Taylor and had no other comment.

Audrey Richardson, a senior attorney in the employment law unit at Greater Boston Legal Services who aided Centro Presente in the complaints, said failure to pay wages is increasingly common among low-wage workers who may not always know their rights.

“I think it’s somewhat surprising in this case where the responsible person obviously should know what his legal obligations are and should address them,’’ she said. “There’s no excuse.’’

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mariasacchetti

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