The owner of Boston pizza chain Stash's Pizza was in federal court Monday to face charges he forced workers to work under threat of abuse and deportation.
Stavros Papantoniadis was arrested last week over allegations of a pattern of abuse that stretch back over a decade, including, according to the complaint filed in federal court, that he assaulted workers who were in the country without documentation and required them to work long hours for less than minimum wage or else he'd call immigration authorities on them.
"He could and did operate the Stash’s Pizzerias with fewer and cheaper workers over whom he exercised significant control, all of which reduced his businesses’ labor and operating costs," investigators wrote of Papantoniadis in the complaint.
The primary victim in this case is described as a small, soft-spoken man in his 60s from North Africa who worked at several Stash's locations between 2001 and 2015. He alleges Papantoniadis kicked him in the genitals, sending him to the hospital, according to the complaint. The pizza shop owner allegedly threatened to kill the man if he didn't return immediately, then again as he convalesced for three weeks after having surgery on the area.
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In court, a federal prosecutor argued that he kept working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week because he feared for his safety.
In court Monday, Papantoniadis' attorney called into question the motive of that victim, who wasn't named by prosecutors, and all the other ones, saying they were protected from deportation for cooperating with the federal investigation. With respect to the man's surgery, he said that was for a pre-existing condition; that man also told investigators Papantoniadis broke his teeth with a punch to the head, requiring him to get dentures, but the lawyer said the man had gum disease.
Papantoniadis is charged with one count of forced labor but investigators shared testimony from six other victims, all undocumented immigrants who said they were also subject to threats and harassment while working for him.
The deputy director of Boston's worker empowerment cabinet says all workers have rights and protections -- regardless of immigration status.
"It is horrific but unfortunately it is not uncommon," said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan. "We are inspired and we will do everything we can in the city to support the brave workers who came forward to shine a light on this situation and we are thankful to our partners in the Department of Labor, Department of Homeland Security and US Attorneys Office who brought the charges."
In court Monday, the federal prosecutor also presented evidence accusing Papantoniadis of engaging in fraud by obtaining a loan for a business he no longer owns, lying to obtain unemployment benefits and possessing sexually graphic videos, arguing he has an interest in humiliation and sadistic violence, though he is not facing charges for these accusations.
Defense attorney Carmine Lapore denied the allegations against Papantoniadis, accusing the former employees of lying about their experiences in order to obtain protection from deportation.
More than three dozen family members and supporters attended the hearing.
More on the Stash's Pizza arrest
Stash’s Pizza remained open last week despite the chain’s owner being in federal custody. The manager of the location in Dorchester, Jerry Skordas, defended Papantoniadis, telling NBC10 Boston on Friday the charges are "beyond shocking, beyond belief and just simply untrue."
Joel Gutierrez, in Spanish, said then that he's worked at the restaurant for three-and-a-half years and that, while, “the allegations are bad ... in this case at least, my coworkers and I have been treated very well.”
This is not the first time Papantoniadis has been in trouble for labor practices. The U.S. Department of Labor first filed suit in March 2017 against Stash's Pizza, Boston Pizza Co., and Weymouth Pizza Co and owners Stavros "Steve" Papantoniadis and Polyxeny "Paulina" Papantoniadis. The suit alleged that the defendants failed to pay proper overtime to 120 employees, misrepresented employees’ pay rates, and falsified time records between November 2013 and March 2016.
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In 2018, the department obtained an injunction from the court to halt violations that continued to occur after the lawsuit's filing and enjoin the defendants from retaliating against employees and former employees and instructing them to lie to or not speak with WHD investigators. The Department's representatives visited each restaurant and read the injunction in the workers' native languages to ensure they understood the injunction's protections and their right to speak to the Department about workplace conditions.
In 2019, the business owners were ordered to pay more than $300,000 in back wages.
“Nobody’s ever come across to me of unpaid anything. You work for this family you are going to be paid handsomely on time, all the time,” Skordas said last week.
But the problems did not stop there. The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office said it has received three complaints since 2019 against Stash’s Pizza, over wage and hour violations.
The new federal charge alleges Papantoniadis repeatedly made derogatory comments about an employee’s religion and violently attacked him several times. When the victim sought medical treatment, investigators said Papantoniadis threatened to kill the employee or report him to immigration authorities if he did not return to work. On another occasion, Papantoniadis allegedly slapped and choked the victim and broke his teeth, causing him to have teeth removed and wear dentures. According to court documents, as a result of the threats and violence, the victim feared Papantoniadis and kept working for him at Stash’s Pizza.
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It is also alleged that when one employee planned to quit, Papantoniadis told him that he was not going to leave and subsequently attacked the victim, forcing him to run to safety in the parking lot. When another victim intended to quit, Papantoniadis allegedly made a false police report, falsely stating that the victim had hit his car and left the scene of the accident after leaving Stash’s Pizza’s Norwood location. As a result, the victim was pulled over and cited by police.
Another employee moved after quitting his job at Stash's Pizza because he was afraid of the owner after experiencing threats and insults, according to the complaint.
Two witnesses who worked at the restaurant told investigators that they saw Papantoniadis threaten workers and require them to work seven days a week, according to the complaint.
Workplace advocates have told NBC10 Boston that allegations of restaurant workers not being paid or being required to work longer without extra pay aren't uncommon. They noted that everyone in Massachusetts has workplace rights.