Colony Diner owner pleads guilty

Bill San Antonio

Following a joint investigation involving the Nassau County district attorney’s office as well as federal and state labor departments, an East Hills resident who co-owns the Colony Diner in East Meadow with his cousin has pleaded guilty to underpaying employees and falsifying records, the district attorney’s office announced last week.

George Strifas, 46, and his cousin Thomas Strifas, 41, of Merrick, and their company, Stardust Diners Inc., each pleaded guilty April 29 to felony counts of falsifying payroll and time records in addition to a misdemeanor count for failing to pay wages in accordance with state laws. 

George and Thomas Strifas face up to four years in prison and will be sentenced July 17.

“The results send a clear message to employers that there are real consequences to wage theft and cash off-the-books payments, that underpaying your workers is not the way to do business,” said Irv Milijoner, the Long Island district director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.

As part of their plea, the owners have agreed to make a payment of $337,780 for underpaid wages and overtime, and liquidated damages of $163,742 to 72 employees, in addition to $48,681 in unemployment insurance to the state’s department of labor.

Efforts to reach the Colony’s owners and their attorneys were unavailing.

According to the DA’s office, the investigation was the first involving the state’s Wage Theft Act, which took effect in April 2011 and increased penalties on wage violations.

Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice said her office’s Labor Unit was contacted by the U.S. Department of Labor in March 2011 after it had begun investigating the diner in 2010. 

In interviews with the diner’s employees between January 2009 and November 2011, it was found that the diner’s wait staff had been paid $2 or less per hour, the business staff had being paid off the books from the wait staff’s cash tips, and the kitchen staff had not been paid overtime despite working anywhere from 50 to 60 hours per week.

At the time, state and federal law mandated minimum wages of $4.65 for wait staff, $7.25 for bussing and kitchen staff, and $10.88 per overtime hour worked, the district attorney’s office said.

The investigation also revealed that the diner had been paying the majority of its employees off the books entirely, resulting in underpaid state unemployment insurance obligations.

“Labor laws exist to ensure that hard-working employees are paid every penny of their wages, as well as hold accountable unscrupulous bosses who steal from their workers,” Rice said in a statement. 

A search warrant in November 2011 revealed falsified payroll and time records and a second set of books with the true pay rate and hours worked by the diner’s employees, the DA’s office said. While records indicate that between 11 and 15 people worked at the diner, the Colony employed between 30 and 40 people in a given week.

“We have wage laws in New York State for a reason – they’re to protect the most vulnerable workers against injustices by predatory employers so they can feed their families,” said state Labor Department Commissioner Peter M. Rivera. 

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Bill San Antonio

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