Wage theft accusations slow momentum for city council candidate

L.A. City Council District 15 candidate Danielle Sandoval apologized for mishandling wage theft complaints from former employees in 2014.

Photo of the Los Angeles City Hall

The Los Angeles City Council may seem synonymous with scandal these days and the race for South Los Angeles’ 15th District may add to that impression.

Danielle Sandoval is running against Tim McOsker for the city council seat representing San Pedro, Harbor City, Wilmington and Watts. In September, the Los Angeles Times reported complaints of wage theft against Sandoval from former employees at Caliente Cantina, Sandoval’s now closed restaurant in San Pedro.

The complaints, which date back eight years, include one by Jose Higareda who alleged the restaurant failed to pay him for more than 100 hours of work. Chef Isaac Garcia testified that the restaurant withheld 48 hours of pay and dishwasher and prep cook Jose Flores Esqueda filed a second complaint alleging $1,080 in wage theft.

Sandoval has contributed $37,000 of her own money to her city council campaign. McOsker argued that the money would have been better spent paying her employees the rest of the money they earned.

Sandoval issued a public apology taking “full responsibility” to get the workers their back-pay “as soon as possible.” Since then, officials with L.A.’s Department of Industrial Relations reported that under a settlement agreement, Garcia and his colleague Alejandro Jaramillo were paid a combined $5,052 in back pay by Sandoval—about 55% of what they were owed.

The California Labor Commissioner’s Office made clear in 2015 that Cantina Investments LLC, a business partner of Caliente Cantina, was the defendant in four cases of alleged wage theft. Sandoval opened Cantina Investments LLC with husband Quinn Padilla in 2014.

“When someone is sued as an individual, if they’re responsible for something, clearly they’re going to be liable themselves individually,” Thomas Lenz, USC Gould School of Law lecturer and labor expert, told Annenberg Media. “When they form an entity like a corporation, they are really creating a liability shield as the organization that has responsibility for the things it does.”

In instances where a corporation does not meet certain legal standards, a court can still hold people personally liable, Lenz added.

After the wage theft cases became public, several of Sandoval’s supporters rescinded their formal endorsements, including the Californians for Human Immigrant Rights Leadership Action Fund and UCLA labor rights expert Victor Narro, a prominent career advocate against wage theft.

Narro told the L.A. Times that he seriously doubted Sandoval’s claim that she did not learn of the cases until last summer. He withdrew his endorsement after Sandoval failed to respond to Narro’s suggestion that she contact the Wage Justice Center and immediately rectify the damages.

“I cannot endorse a candidate that engages in wage theft and then doesn’t do anything to address it,” Narro said. “She hasn’t stepped up to take responsibility.”

If Sandoval had not run for office and been in the public eye, these outstanding wage theft cases may have taken even longer to be resolved, Lenz said. The legal process is very slow, but timing usually depends on how receptive the defendant is toward paying off claims.

“There’s no guarantee that someone is going to pay what you’ve been awarded in any particular period of time,” Lenz said. “In my law practice, we see employers [who will] sometimes pay right away. Sometimes, there is some delay or an appeal. Others may file bankruptcy or just try to delay payment.”

Environmental justice advocate and former District 15 primary opponent Bryant Odega said he is standing by his endorsement of Sandoval despite her flaws. He said he could never support McOsker, who worked at City Hall as a former lobbyist representing real estate developers, hotel associations and the Los Angeles Police Department.

“I just can’t trust someone with that kind of work history,” he said.

The L.A. City Council election takes place on November 8 with polls already open to voters.