FAMOUS KENYAN RESTAURANT IN DC GET SUED FOR STEALING WAGES AND TIPS.

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WASHINGTON, DC – Attorney General Brian L. Schwalb today announced a lawsuit against Swahili Village M Street, LLC (Swahili Village DC) and its executive officers, Kevin Onyona and Emad Shoeb, for systematically stealing wages and tips from its servers, hosts, food runners, bussers, and bartenders. The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) alleges, after a lengthy pre-suit investigation, that the defendants engaged in egregious wage theft, paid many workers far less than minimum wage (frequently paying servers as little as $5 per hour, including both wages and tips), failed to pay overtime wages, failed to distribute tips, and failed to provide legally required paid sick leave. In its complaint, OAG details a years-long pattern of wage theft and worker abuse. In addition to injunctive relief, the lawsuit seeks to recover wages owed to restaurant workers, and to impose penalties for legal violations. 

“Our investigation indicates that Swahili Village DC and its executives, Kevin Onyona and Emad Shoeb, persistently and systematically failed to pay hundreds of hard-working restaurant workers the wages, tips, and benefits they were legally entitled to receive, violating the basic wage, overtime, sick leave, and record-keeping rules that all District employers are required to follow,” said Attorney General Schwalb. “The Office of the Attorney General is committed to aggressively enforcing our wage and labor laws so as to ensure that employers do not steal from their employees and that all businesses compete on a level playing field.  This lawsuit reflects that ongoing commitment to DC workers and law-abiding businesses.”

Swahili Village DC, also known as “The Consulate,” is a fine-dining restaurant located in Ward 2 that advertises itself as a high-end meeting place for dignitaries and diplomats. Swahili Village DC has employed hundreds of DC workers since it opened in 2020, the vast majority of whom are people of color, and many who are young African immigrants. Kevin Onyona is the founder and CEO of Swahili Village DC and Emad Shoeb is the COO. In addition to Swahili Village DC, they own and operate two other Swahili Village locations in Maryland and New Jersey, and publicly claim to have significant hospitality industry experience.

OAG’s complaint alleges that despite Onyona and Shoeb’s heavily touted industry experience, they and Swahili Village DC failed to comply with multiple DC laws, including the Minimum Wage Revision Act, Sick and Safe Leave Act, and Wage Payment and Collection Law.

Specifically, OAG alleges that Swahili Village DC and its owners broke the law by:

  • Wage theft: Swahili Village DC began stealing from workers before it opened its doors. In January 2020, in preparation for the restaurant’s opening in March, it began hiring employees, having them come in to prepare the restaurant for opening, and conducting mandatory employee trainings. Though the District’s minimum wage at the time was $14 per hour, multiple employees were paid $5 per hour or less, and some were not compensated at all. In March 2020, when Swahili Village DC closed its dining room due to COVID-19, it failed to pay many workers for work they had performed before the closure. Even as in-person restaurant patronage rebounded, the restaurant continued cheating its employees. By 2021, the restaurant hired 30 additional employees to serve its growing customer base. Yet in 2021 and 2022, the restaurant continued stealing wages, underpaying some individual employees by more than $5,000.
     
  • Failing to pay minimum wages: From 2020 through 2022, Swahili Village DC failed to pay hundreds of workers the minimum wage or even the lower tipped minimum wage. Many servers reported that they were consistently paid a total of $5.00 per hour, including wages and tips. Some employees were paid only in tips provided by customers, and when tips did not amount to the required minimum wage, the restaurant did not pay workers the difference, as required by DC law. Other tipped workers did receive a base wage, but it was below the tipped minimum wage. The restaurant and its owners did not even keep records of each employee’s hours worked and compensation from tips, which would have been necessary to ensure each worker earned at least the minimum wage.
     
  • Stealing tips: Swahili Village DC required some servers and bartenders to turn over some or all of their tips, claiming they would be distributed to other workers. However, many other staff never received a share of the tips, and Swahili Village DC did not provide any notice or explanation of their tip-sharing policy as DC law requires. Instead, hundreds of dollars these employees earned would disappear from each paycheck with no explanation and no evidence that tips were actually being shared with other workers.
     
  • Failing to provide paid sick leave:  Swahili Village DC never provided employees with any paid sick leave, as required by DC law. When employees were injured or sick, including with COVID-19, they were not paid and were often verbally reprimanded for missing work. Other employees came to work while sick or injured because they could not afford to stay home without pay.
     
  • Failing to pay overtime wages: Under DC law, employees must be paid at least 1.5 times their regular rate for any hours worked in excess of 40 hours per week. Many employees clocked more than 40, and even sometimes more than 60, hours a week but never received overtime pay. 
     
  • Failing to maintain required employment records: Every business in the District is required by law to provide employees with basic records regarding their employment and pay. This includes information in writing about their rate of pay, regular pay date, and employer’s tip-sharing policy (if tips are shared). Employers are also required to provide employees with statements each pay day including details of hours worked, wages, tips, and any deductions, and they are required to preserve basic payroll records for at least three years. Onyona, Shoeb, and Swahili Village DC routinely failed to do any of this and, as a result, employees did not know how their pay was calculated or whether taxes or any other deductions were withheld. These recordkeeping failures facilitated broader wage theft by keeping employees in the dark. Swahili Village DC also failed to maintain accurate payroll records, including by omitting some employees completely.

This matter is being handled by Assistant Attorneys General Sarah Michael Levine and Zack Hill, Summer Associate Callie McQuilkin, Assistant Section Chief Randy Chen, and Section Chief Graham Lake.

OAG’s Efforts to Protect Workers    
In 2021, OAG established the Workers’ Rights & Antifraud Section, which is dedicated to fighting wage theft and protecting District workers. Since gaining wage theft enforcement authority in 2017, OAG has secured over $18 million for workers and the District by bringing investigations and lawsuits against employers who violate District law. OAG’s wage theft enforcement efforts have focused on industries with high populations of vulnerable workers, such as constructionrestaurants and hospitalityhealthcare, and the gig economy. OAG also released a report about how worker misclassification hurts workers, undercuts law-abiding businesses, and cheats taxpayers. Last September, OAG released a Labor Day report highlighting efforts to protect DC workers. Click here for more information about OAG’s legal victories standing up for workers’ rights.

How to Report Wage and Hour Violations
Workers who believe that their rights have been violated, or that they have experienced wage theft or other wage and hour violations, can contact OAG by calling (202) 442-9828 or emailing workers@dc.gov or trabajadores@dc.gov.

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