Elgin restaurant workers: Paychecks missing

September 6, 2010 (ELGIN, Ill.)

Starting a new restaurant takes a lot of work initially. Some workers say they wanted to help the owner succeed but lost their motivation when pay days came and went without what they say they were owed.

The workers say they are waiting to get paid hundreds of dollars in back pay -- in some cases, thousands of dollars.

"It was going on for weeks until I finally got fed up and told him I'm doing without your taking food from my kids' mouths," said Linda Sjurset.

"I need my money because I feel I went above and beyond for him," Earlie Span said.

The worked showed ABC7 Chicago their uniforms from Mama Lou's Shrimp and Barbeque smokehouse, which opened July 1 in Elgin.

Jerry Martin says he was the manager and technician and is also owed money. He showed copies of what he says are handwritten timesheets he kept for the restaurant's owner.

"Build us up like he's gonna pay us. It's coming this week. It's coming next week. Pay day's Tuesday, pay day's Friday. Well, pay day never came," Martin said.

All four employees say they've filed complaints with the Illinois Dept. of Labor. The department does not comment on open cases, but confirms they are investigating allegations of unpaid wages at Mama Lou's in Elgin.

"We certainly empathize with business who are having challenges right now, but if you require an employee to come in to work, you have to pay them," said Bert Rodriguez of the Ill. Department of Labor.

ABC7 we went to the location of Mama's Lou's, but it appears to be operating under a different name.

The owner, Jim Bennett, says he is in the process of liquidating the business. ABC7 found him at home in a nearby suburb. Bennett says the employees ABC7 spoke with have exaggerated how much they are owed. He said one had been fired and one was an independent contractor.

When asked if people are owed money, Bennett said:

"I don't know specifically. I would more than likely venture to say yes, they do."

" Will they get that money?" asked ABC7's Leah Hope.

"All depends, if the company can pay them, let the company pay them," Bennett said.

Bennett says starting a business is difficult and he feels bad that some employees may not get what they're owed.

"I would do whatever I can to provide them with their money, but for those who deliberately and intentionally brought this company down, I'd rather go to court with you," said Bennett.

The Department of Labor can impose fines if an employer has violated the law. Starting January 1, the department will be able to impose tougher fines and a repeat offenders could face criminal charges.

Those who believe they are owed money from an employer are encouraged to file a complaint with the Department of Labor.

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