Lawsuit spotlights alleged minimum wage violations at Anchorage restaurants

When Jacinta Ah-Dar moved to Anchorage from American Samoa, she said, she found a job at a local restaurant called Hula Hands and she felt thankful for the work.

“We were just desperate to have a job,” she said. “Especially in Alaska, where if you don’t have a job — you could freeze out there.”

That was nearly two decades ago. Ah-Dar went on to work at the family-owned neighborhood restaurant for years, she said. When the family opened West Berlin, a German restaurant down the road, Ah-Dar spent time working there, too. Eventually, her teenage daughter joined her. Then last year, after a dispute with a manager and a visit to the state labor department and a meeting with a lawyer, she said she was “blown away” to learn about the the state’s wage and hour laws.

Now Ah-Dar and her daughter, Faith, have filed suit against the owners of both Hula Hands and West Berlin, seeking approximately $150,000 in back wages and statutory penalties for months worth of alleged wage law violations.

According to court documents, both women received $30 plus tips per shift while working at West Berlin for periods of time between 2016 and 2018. And in 2016, when Ah-Dar injured her leg and needed help at work and recruited her teenage daughter to come be her hands and feet on the job at Hula Hands, Faith Ah-Dar worked six days a week and never received a paycheck at all, according to court filings. Eventually, she dropped out of high school, her mother said.

West Berlin owner William Hoopai declined to comment. Hula Hands owner Charlene Goeas could not be reached for comment, and managers did not respond to requests for comment.

Northern Justice Project partner Jim Davis, representing Ah-Dar in the case, said he sees wage cases every few months.

“By and large the cases involve immigrants, because by and large, if you’re not an immigrant, you can report these charges to the Department of Labor or to other agencies, and those agencies will often contact the employer and make things right,” Davis said.

Jacinta Ah-Dar, born in Western Samoa, is still working to become an American citizen, and still waiting for her green card, she said. But she saved extensive documentation from her years working at the restaurants. The records helped strengthen her case, Davis said.

The Alaska Department of Labor receives hundreds of wage claims annually. According to the state’s Wage and Hour Administration, it investigated more than 600 claims between July 2016 and July 2018. Over the same time period, it found 39 to be invalid.

Davis said he hears from employees who never make an official complaint.

“If they don’t have a solid immigration status, 99 percent of them will say, ‘I don’t want any help at all. I do not want ICE called on me. And you can tell me, Jim, you can protect me, or you can tell me an immigration center will protect me, but there is no way I’m gonna stick my neck out to get my wages if deportation or immigration is even a possibility,’” the attorney said.

Ah-Dar said she didn’t think twice about bringing her case forward. After working at the restaurant for so many years, she said, she felt like she’d earned more respect than she’d received before she left in 2018.

“I was speaking up for what had happened to me,” she said. “I didn’t know, with my daughter’s situation — volunteering — that you were supposed to get paid.”

State labor records show Hula Hands has made payments in three previous wage claims filed by former employees. Davis said he hopes Ah-Dar’s suit can be settled quickly, sending a message to businesses around the state that labor protections apply to everyone — no matter their immigration status. Ah-Dar said she wants the truth to be heard.

“It’ll be great for them — for everyone who’s still working, I hope,” she said. “I hope a difference is made.”