TURKEY AND STIFFING

HOLIDAY DO-GOODER'S CHECKS AREN'T SO GOOD, EX-EMPLOYEES SAY

You've probably heard of Nick Ligidakis--or at least about what he does each Thanksgiving Day. Many news organizations, including New Times, give the Phoenix restaurateur a ton of positive publicity for organizing his annual Thanksgiving Day dinner for the Valley's downtrodden.

You've probably never heard of Sacramento and Maria Correa or Fernando Suarez. They are downtrodden, they say, largely because of their employment at Ligidakis' restaurant, Nick's Cuisine of Southern Europe, 3717 East Indian School.

The illegal aliens from Mexico have bounced payroll checks, indicating that Ligidakis has stiffed them for thousands of dollars in back wages.

"He talks about helping the needy," says Sacramento Correa, 47, the father of eight. "But he made us needy. We worked hard for the money to send back home. We may be illegal, but this is wrong."
Correa says Ligidakis owes him and his wife, Maria, more than $2,500. Flat broke, he and Maria, 36, have been living in a makeshift shelter in a friend's west Phoenix backyard. Only one of the Correas' children--a teenager who attends high school and sleeps in the friend's home--is with them now. The other seven children are living with Maria's mother in the Mexican state of Michoac n.

Ligidakis denies the allegations. "We have gone through hard times in my business," he says, referring to a 1991 bankruptcy, "but I have always paid my employees. . . . The account I wrote them the checks on is closed. If I owe Sacramento something, all he has to do is show up and I'll pay him."

The Correas and Suarez say they heard about Ligidakis--an immigrant from Greece--through word of mouth. The $4.25-per-hour wage he promised for kitchen work sounded fabulous. At first, the Correas say, Ligidakis was demanding but fair. They worked long hours and sometimes slept at the restaurant until the first city buses could take them home at 5 a.m.

Records show the Correas cashed several paychecks without incident. (But even those paychecks were questionable. Ligidakis deducted for Social Security, federal and state taxes, uniform and meal allowance, and medical insurance. But the Mexicans say they know of no Social Security or tax-identification numbers--or health insurance--under their names.)

Then the paychecks began to bounce.
"He'd say, 'Go to the bank right now and cash your check.' We'd go, but the bank said he had no money," Maria Correa says, producing several paychecks, drawn on a Bank of America account, stamped "insufficient funds."
Suarez, a shy man in his 20s, says that despite the worthless paychecks, "I didn't want to quit, because then I'd never get the money. Nick would just get mad at me and say, 'Go ahead and sue me.'"

Ligidakis fired the Correas in late June, they say. Suarez was dismissed in late September. The three were desperate.

Rita Ruiz stepped forward to help. Hearing of the aliens' difficulties through her church, Ruiz, a retired income-tax preparer, loaned them money for food, studied their paperwork and arranged a fruitless meeting with Ligidakis. And she filed a complaint on their behalf with federal labor officials.

In his response to the feds, Ligidakis claimed Sacramento Correa actually owes him $1,200 for bogus timecards and theft. "We want to pay this man, but we do not want to be ripped off by him," Ligidakis wrote July 5. "He has checks that are not cashed. Funds are available. All he has to do is cash them with the bank."

After getting nowhere, Ruiz was ready to give up a few weeks ago. "I wanted to give them a bus ticket home," she says. "Then I saw the stories on what a great man this Nick is. I told myself, 'I can't let him get away with this.'"

Ligidakis has been in hot water with the government before. In April 1991, he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after back taxes and loans overwhelmed him. And Ligidakis has had trouble with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Ruth Anne Myers, INS district director, says Ligidakis was fined $5,100 in July for hiring illegal aliens and for other violations.

Ligidakis says the fine was imposed "three years ago" and that he paid it in monthly installments. Myers, however, says Ligidakis has made only one payment of about $400, and her agency intends to collect.

Told of the employees' allegations, Myers says, "We are interested in this case on both legal and humanitarian angles. These people may be illegal, but they are victims in this case. It isn't right."

Remarkably, the Correas don't seem embittered by their experience with Nick Ligidakis. They say most of their relationships with U.S. employers have been fine. "We still feel blessed because of the people who have helped us," says Maria Correa. "We are here for our kids, to make a better life for them. We know this isn't the land of honey. We want to earn what we get.

 
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