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Colony Diner owners plead guilty to shorting pay of 72 employees

Colony Diner in East Meadow. (Feb. 15, 2013)

Colony Diner in East Meadow. (Feb. 15, 2013) Credit: Ian J. Stark

After a joint investigation involving the Nassau County district attorney's office and federal and state labor departments, the owners of the Colony Diner in East Meadow have pleaded guilty to underpaying 72 workers and falsifying records, the district attorney's office said Tuesday.

It was the first such joint investigation under New York State's Wage Theft Prevention Act, which took effect in April 2011. That law ratchets up the penalties for wage violations.

The owners, George Strifas, 46, of East Hills, and his cousin Thomas Strifas, 41, of Merrick, and their company, Stardust Diners Inc., pleaded guilty to felony counts involving falsifying payroll and time records and one misdemeanor count of failing to comply with state wage laws. They face up to 4 years in prison when they are sentenced July 17.

They have also agreed to pay more than $500,000 as part of the plea: $337,780 in back wages to settle minimum wage and overtime violations, $163,742 in damages to the employees and $48,681 in state unemployment insurance payments.

"The results send a clear message to employers that there are real consequences to wage theft and cash-off-the-book payments," said Irv Miljoner who heads the U.S. Labor Department's Westbury office, which initiated the probe. "Underpaying your workers it not the way to do business."

Neither the owners, who were called at their diner, nor their attorneys returned telephone calls seeking comment.

Since 2011, the Long Island office of the U.S. Labor Department has stepped up its enforcement efforts against wage violators in the restaurant industry after alleging widespread minimum-wage and overtime infractions.

The local office contacted the district attorney in March 2011 after the agency's third probe of Colony since 1999 concluded that the diner continued to violate overtime and minimum-wage laws and continued to pay most of its employees off the books, Miljoner said.

The office's latest probe found that between September 2007 and September 2010 the Colony servers sometimes earned less than $2 an hour and the kitchen staff earned no overtime despite working 50 to 60 hours a week. And it found that the diner falsified its records.

Federal labor laws require employers to pay employees 1 1/2 times their regular hourly wage when they work more than 40 hours in a week. And hourly employees must earn at least the minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour.

After obtaining a search warrant, the district attorney's office said it found two sets of books at the restaurant, one with falsified payroll and time records and another set with the "true pay rate and hours worked by the diner's employees."

"Labor laws exist to ensure that hardworking employees are paid every penny of their wages," said District Attorney Kathleen Rice.

Workers who believe they are covered by the settlement should call the district attorney's office at 516-571-1300.

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