A former dishwasher at Indigo, the popular Indian eatery near Union Station, led a group of about 40 protesters to the restaurant on Wednesday to demand $7,000 in back wages and damages that the former employee claims she is owed.

Reyna Maradiaga walked away empty-handed from Indigo, but she said she plans to file an official complaint Thursday with the D.C. Department of Employment Services' Office of Wage-Hour Compliance.

Reyna Maradiaga led a rare public protest to fight for back wages at Indigo near Union Station. (Photo by Anor Ortega/ Employment Justice Center)
Former dishwasher Reyna Maradiaga led a rare public protest to fight for back wages at Indigo near Union Station.
(Photo by Anor Ortega/ Employment Justice Center)

The protest disrupted a patio full of lunchtime diners, said owner Dinesh Tandon, as he watched customers walk out while Maradiaga and others carried signs and used a bullhorn to voice their complaints. Maradiaga claims she's owed at least $3,607 for unpaid wages and overtime from Aug. 18, 2014, to May 23.

[The $20 Diner: The lean and potent home-style Punjabi cooking at Indigo.]

Under the new D.C. Wage Theft Prevention Amendment Act of 2014, Maradiaga has the right to claim liquidated damages up to three times the amount of her allegedly unpaid wages and overtime, says Emma Cleveland, employment justice organizer for the D.C. Employment Justice Center, which is assisting the employee.

An official protest at an employer's business is rare, said Cleveland. It happens only three to five times a year. "Generally employers keep records and do the right thing," she said. But in this case, the EJC alleges that Tandon has not provided Maradiaga's full payroll records and has "been unwilling to negotiate."

Once he reviewed his records, Tandon said, he realized he had neglected to pay Maradiaga overtime, but by his calculations, Indigo owed the former dishwasher only $476. Maradiaga and the EJC, however, determined that Tandon owes more than $3,600, including wages for a period when the dishwasher was paid a small salary (about $280 a week) when she was allegedly working more than 40 hours a week. The $3,600 figure also includes back overtime pay and a missing final paycheck (but not the liquidated damages, which brings the total to $7,000).

Tandon said Maradiaga worked only part-time during her weekly pay period. What's more, he said, the dishwasher walked out with her final paycheck in hand, and he never heard from her again until the D.C. Employment Justice Center contacted him. He initially thought the nonprofit, which protects the rights of low-income workers, was a D.C. government entity and he provided the group with the records he had.

Maradiaga denied she ever received a final check and has pressed Tandon for it repeatedly. She also claims she was, in essence, fired in May when she was denied permission to leave work so she could take papers to her daughter who was transferring schools. "He told her that if she couldn't come in to work that she might as well not come anymore," Cleveland noted.

Tandon dismissed the story. "I have never fired anyone in 2 1/2 years," the owner said.

In the end, the back-and-forth allegations don't amount to much, Cleveland said. It's the employer's responsibility to provide detailed records when there are pay disputes. "The law allows a worker's word to be taken as evidence," she said.

The Indigo owner wondered why his former employee didn't complain earlier about pay before turning to a justice organization. An Employment Justice Center representative noted via e-mail that employees such as Maradiaga, workers with limited English-language skills, do not always understand wage laws but then turn to EJC once they cannot get their final paycheck from an employer.

"Someone has given her the hope that she will end up with a little more money from me," Tandon said.