Nepalese immigrants, claiming they are owed more than $2 million in unpaid wages after toiling at Long Island gas stations, called for their salaries to be paid by the businesses' owner.
More than 20 workers gathered Wednesday outside a gas station and convenience store in Brentwood, seeking to put the spotlight on Steve Keshtgar -- owner of 22 corporations that filed for bankruptcy in December and January.
An attorney for Keshtgar said he and his companies are not responsible and that an ex-employee did not pay the wages.
The former station attendants and clerks chanted in Nepalese and English and held up signs with messages such as "Justice for gas station workers" and "Nepali workers need to be paid to help their families back home," citing the April earthquake that devastated their homeland.
Workers said the businesses closed, without notice and owing months of wages and overtime pay. They allege that their employer took rent deductions for filthy and crowded rooms where some slept in shifts. As many as 40 immigrants from Nepal and other South Asian nations may have been affected.
"I worked for this company like for four years and I worked for just minimum wages," said a man who identified himself as Chitra K.C., 34, formerly employed at a Holbrook station. "Now you don't pay me. How can I feed my family?"
Pasang Lama worked at Islandia and Centereach stations. He said through an interpreter that gasoline exposure had left him sick and now he's penniless.
"I can't support my family here and, now, back in Nepal, I can't support my extended family," said Lama, 55. "The government needs to act and give us what we are owed and the owners need to go to jail."
Raji Manjari Pokhrel, an advocate with the Nepalese-advocacy group Adhikaar in Woodside, Queens, said the workers were seeking restitution in bankruptcy court with the help of pro-bono attorneys, but also want government help.
"This is modern-day slavery," Pokhrel said. "This is what it looks like and we want people to understand that this is happening where we live."
Reached by telephone, Keshtgar, whose main office is in Bay Shore, declined to comment and referred all questions to his bankruptcy lawyers. Attorney Michael J. Macco, of Macco & Stern LLP in Melville, said his client was unaware of problems until the companies descended into bankruptcy and a bank seized accounts in December. He said pay was withheld by "a dishonest and possibly criminal employee general manager" who has been fired. He did not identify the man.
"Unbeknownst to us he was renting rooms in these houses for tenants to live in," Macco said. "He wouldn't turn over paychecks that he was supposed to be handing to employees, because he was trying to collect his rent on his own."
The company couldn't issue pay as of Dec. 15, but Macco said it would seek to honor "up to $12,475" per employee "if there's money left" in bankruptcy proceedings.
Court records show that 25 of Keshtgar's companies were targeted in a 2007 federal lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Labor over allegations that employees weren't paid properly after working long workweeks. The companies settled, agreeing to pay more than $85,000 in back wages to 182 employees, plus a $10,000 penalty. Macco said the companies had been "audited several times" since and had met obligations.
Neither the federal nor the state Department of Labor responded to inquiries on the new allegations.The latest case has attracted the attention of the small community of Nepalese residents associated with the Long Island Nepalese Society as well as labor activists from Long Island Jobs With Justice and the Long Island Federation of Labor, who joined the demonstration.
"We are going to put all of our resources and our strength behind you to make sure that employers like this guy don't steal your money, steal your wages, hurt your relatives back wherever they may live," said Roger Clayman, the federation's director. "We can't allow that to happen."