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Davis, California

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Former employee of Osteria Fasulo claims she was fired for speaking Spanish

Owner of the upscale Davis restaurant denies allegations of discrimination, racist comments through attorney

High-end Davis restaurant Osteria Fasulo made national headlines this month when a former employee filed an official complaint alleging that the owner subjected her to a racist tirade, before telling her she needed to leave the restaurant if she didn’t “learn English.” The restaurant owner, Leonardo Fasulo, is disputing the complaint through legal representation.

The Center for Workers’ Rights in Sacramento announced it was filing an official complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing on behalf of former Osteria Fasulo employee Francisca Perez. The workers’ rights organization forwarded to The California Aggie an unofficial copy of the complaint that they submitted. The alleged incident occurred around dinner time on May 31, 2018, when Fasulo overheard Perez discussing a food order in Spanish with another co-worker, according to the document.

“Mr. Fasulo got upset that we were speaking Spanish and interrupted our conversation by telling my coworker ‘we do not speak Spanish here,’” Perez said in the complaint. “He kept yelling and arguing with my coworker while I walked back to the kitchen to continuing preparing the food.”

Perez claimed that Fasulo continued to argue with her coworker before following Perez into the kitchen and asking her why she was speaking Spanish, saying, “This is America” and “We only speak English here.” The complaint alleges that Fasulo then told her he might as well start serving Mexican food and change the menu to Spanish since she and her coworker liked to speak Spanish. Perez clarified Fasulo’s purported comments in an interview with The Sacramento Bee.

“[Perez alleged] Fasulo screamed at her, pounded a table, mockingly asked if she wanted him to add burritos to the menu and told her she needed to learn English to keep her job,” The Bee reported.

Perez claimed she then told Fasulo that he was discriminating against Mexicans, who are “the very people making your food.” At this, Perez alleged, Fasulo became even angrier and told her to leave the restaurant and that she could no longer work there if she didn’t learn English. Perez alleged that Fasulo refused her request for her final paycheck.

“I asked him if he was going to pay me my final paycheck and he replied that he was going to pay me whenever he felt like it,” Perez said in the complaint.

The Bee reported that the altercation allegedly occurred in front of Perez’s 11-year-old son, who had just walked into the restaurant to wait for his mother to finish her shift.

Daniela Urban, an attorney at the Center for Workers’ Rights, said that Perez did eventually receive her final paycheck, but is seeking financial compensation for the delay — under the California labor code, wages earned and unpaid must be paid at the time that an employee is discharged, or the employee may be entitled to compensation from a “waiting time penalty.”

“[There is a] waiting time penalty for failing to issue it immediately, which is required,” Urban said. “The damages from that, as well as her missed rest breaks, are part of our claim for wages, [as well as] compensatory damages for the time she was out of work that we also feel she would be entitled to.”

Urban said that Perez is also seeking an apology from Fasulo and assurance that the restaurant will implement a system to ensure that incidents like this don’t occur in the future. Urban said that such incidents were more common than one might think.

“We see national-origin discrimination happen far more frequently than the Davis community or the Greater Sacramento community […] would expect,” Urban said. “We think of our communities as more progressive, being in California, but there is this blatant discrimination — it often happens in places like kitchens and laundries where customers aren’t seeing the discussions that are happening between the employees and the boss.”

Fasulo’s lawyer, Matthew Smith, disputed Perez’s account of the incident. On Jan. 18, he said that he and Fasulo had not received any official notice from the state or Perez’s legal representation. Urban also said the request was submitted to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing on Jan. 8 and that the official complaint would be filed either that week or the next.

Smith alleged that Perez was never fired but quit by leaving her shift early that day. He claims Fasulo attempted to provide her final paycheck by mailing it to her home address as registered with the company.

“We don’t know why she left, she didn’t explain the reasoning for leaving, but she never returned,” Smith said. “When she didn’t return, Mr. Fasulo cut her final check […] and when she didn’t come for it, he mailed it to her last known address.”

Smith claimed that Fasulo never made the alleged racist comments and that his restaurant does not have an “English-only” policy. Policies prohibiting other languages in the workplace are considered unlawful national-origin discrimination by the federal Equal Opportunity Commision and the California DFEH, unless the owner can prove it is justified by “business necessity.”

According to Smith, the only altercation that day occurred with another employee, contradicting Perez’s account of events.

“He didn’t make any comments to Ms. Perez,” Smith said. “There was an altercation between a waitress and Mr. Fasulo. Ms. Perez was not a party to that conversation. Mr. Fasulo doesn’t even know if she was in earshot of that conversation.”

Smith alleged that Fasulo was training the waitress at the time, when he heard the waitress-in-training speaking Spanish loudly in the dining room.

“Mr. Fasulo said to this waitress, ‘Look, we need to speak English in the dining room, because when guests are present, they feel uncomfortable with people speaking languages they don’t understand,’” Smith said. “We don’t believe that was taken as a statement of policy, because it’s not a policy. It’s courtesy, and Mr. Fasulo was trying to teach this young lady about courtesy when she is serving.”

Smith said that he believed that the waitress in question was Janet Ruelas-Nava, a third-year nutrition science major at UC Davis, who was also formerly employed at Osteria Fasulo. The alleged complaint from the Center for Workers’ Rights includes a declaration from Ruelas-Nava corroborating Perez’s account of events.

According to Smith, Fasulo is an Italian immigrant who is fluent in five languages — including Spanish — and not a native English speaker himself. Fasulo was close with Perez throughout her off-and-on employment spanning over a decade at Osteria Fasulo, Smith said, and was hurt by her accusations. He expressed some skepticism that Perez was the sole party behind the accusations.

“Mr. Fasulo would babysit Ms. Perez’s children as they were growing up,” Smith said. “They were very, very close, and he’s very hurt by the actions that are being taken. He feels they are only being taken because she wants money.”

Written by: Tim Lalonde— city@theaggie.org


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