Harassment Supreme?

John Unger couldn't believe his first assignment as a delivery driver for Pizza Hut.

It was April 1999. A few days earlier, he had spotted an Apache Junction newspaper ad touting delivery jobs at the local Pizza Hut, with pay starting at $12 an hour. He had just spent the last several months commuting from his Apache Junction home to Tempe every night as a graveyard-shift supervisor for directory assistance. It paid only $10 an hour and required him to come in on his off-hours and chew out workers who weren't pulling their weight. For Unger, it was too much responsibility for too little compensation. He figured with tips he could make up to $15 an hour at Pizza Hut, all for just driving around town delivering pizzas. It was irresistible.

But at his job interview, Unger immediately picked up on something unsettling about the store's manager, Rick Carter. A dark-haired, heavily tattooed guy in his mid-30s with the imposing build of an NFL defensive tackle, Carter seemed jittery and paranoid, Unger says. The pupils of his eyes were like golf balls and his jaw had a habit of grinding back and forth. Unger found it a little disturbing, but pretended not to notice.

Carter offered him a job on the spot, and on Unger's first day of work, Carter sent him out with one of his veteran drivers. His first task was to make a personal pickup for Rick, an incident recounted in a harassment lawsuit recently filed by Unger against Pizza Hut.

"We went to Rick's apartment, and the other driver got a green bag out and put it in the back of my pickup truck," Unger recalls. "And we rode around for hours. The bag looked pretty stuffed. After a while I started to loosen him up and he told me it was illegal. It was crystal meth."

Unger, 37, says when he got back to Pizza Hut, he confronted Carter and told him he didn't want "that stuff" in his truck anymore. In response, Carter whispered to the other driver for a few minutes, and the other driver put the bag in his own car.

But, Unger says, his discomfort with his new boss was only beginning.

"He'd have me drop him off somewhere, and I'd have to wait outside for 20 minutes until he came out," the ex-delivery driver says. "Or else he'd leave the store with the worst type of people you've ever seen, really mean and really dirty. They were always hanging out in the parking lot, and he'd bring them in to the back kitchen."

In his complaint filed this April in Pinal County Superior Court, Unger says he discussed such erratic behavior with Carter's mother, Betty, a Pizza Hut area supervisor whose drill-instructor demeanor had made her the platinum-haired matriarch of fast food in Apache Junction. Overseeing the daily operations of eight different Pizza Hut locations, Betty routinely hired her family members to management positions. And, Unger says, she also expected the staff to cover for her son.

"Every morning, Rick would never be there [at the restaurant]," Unger says. "Betty would call me to go to his house and wake him up. That was my job, even if I was missing deliveries. And I couldn't wake him up. And he wouldn't go in there until nighttime."

But -- according to Unger's complaint, as well as a second lawsuit filed recently against the Carters and Pizza Hut, and New Times interviews with a dozen former employees -- despite such short hours, Rick Carter found time to create plenty of unrest at his restaurant.

In particular, some ex-employees are claiming that Rick asked his drivers to deliver crystal meth in pizza boxes, where they would encounter shadowy characters who handed them mysterious envelopes, and that members of the Carter family also repeatedly manipulated time cards, resulting in chronic underpayment of his staff.

Maria Crimi Speth, a Phoenix commercial-litigation and employment lawyer, filed Unger's harassment suit, and followed up on June 29 with a class-action, wage-claim suit on behalf of "all people, except defendants, who were ever employed" at the Pizza Hut of Apache Junction. In both lawsuits, the defendants include Pizza Hut of Apache Junction, Inc. (owners of the franchise), Tricon Restaurant Group (corporate owners of Pizza Hut) and Rick Carter, his brother Tim, and Betty Carter. None of these defendants has yet been served with the lawsuits, and none has issued any response to the charges.

"In my 14 years of practice, I've never seen a more egregious abuse of employees as what I've been told about at Pizza Hut by employees," says Speth, who estimates that as many as 1,000 employees may have been underpaid by the Carter family since the late '80s.

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia