Abused Again in the USA, Refugees Say

SACRAMENTO (CN) – Bosnian Refugees claim in court that bosses at a Croatian cultural center paid them in cash or not at all and threatened their families with jail if they complained about it.
     Ivo and Anka Petricevic sued the Croatian American Cultural Center of Sacramento, its manager Mike Zupan, and board president Mike Matosevic, in Superior Court.
     The Petricevics immigrated to the U.S. from the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina as refugees of the Bosnian War and settled in Sacramento. A fellow Croatian national encouraged them to visit the Croatian American Cultural Center (CACC) to meet other Croatians.
     Upon visiting the CACC – described in the complaint as a nonprofit but also a business that rents out its hall, grounds, and outdoor stage – the Petricevics met defendant Zupan and their children began working for the center.
     “In 2001, Mr. Zupan asked if the Petricevics would like to work at the CACC,” the complaint states. “Plaintiffs were reluctant to accept employment and explained to Mr. Zupan that they both suffered from post Traumatic Stress Disorder (‘PTSD’) as a result of their experiences in the Bosnian War. Mr. Zupan assured plaintiffs that the work would only be once or twice per month and that he was confident plaintiffs would be able to handle it. When plaintiffs inquired whether the work would affect the government disability benefits they received, Mr. Zupan informed them that ‘all workers are paid in cash’ and stated that he does not ‘report’ anyone.”
     Not knowing the customs of the United States and trusting Zupan, the Petricevics say, they went to work – without pay for two months.
     “When plaintiffs asked Mr. Zupan when they would be paid, Mr. Zupan angrily replied ‘work and keep silent or I will put you in jail,'” the Petricevics say in the complaint.
     Realizing that he had frightened them, Zupan wrote to one of the Petricevics’ children as payment, but demanded that they “not tell any government agencies or even their doctors that they were working for CACC,” they say in the complaint.
     The Petricevics say they continued to work for CACC for $7 an hour under Zupan’s “strict control,” doing general labor jobs such as washing and cleaning, unloading deliveries, setting up for events and preparing food. They sometimes worked 15 to 20 hours a day, but were never paid for overtime and were often denied meal or rest breaks, they say.
     To further deny them proper employment benefits, Zupan forced them at threat of losing their jobs to make their children get a license for a cleaning business, Z&Z Cleaners, they say.
     “Thereafter, the CACC issued checks for the payment of plaintiffs’ wages payable to Z&Z Cleaning, apparently attempting to create the appearance of an independent contractor relationship. However, Z&Z Cleaning existed in name only and in no way exercised any control over the services plaintiffs provided to the CACC. Indeed, apart from the name written on the checks, nothing changed in the employment relationship between the plaintiffs and the CACC,” the Petricevics say in the complaint.
     Zupan also compelled Ivo Petricevic “to have one of his children create another fictional business and obtain a license to handle, prepare, and sell meat so that the CACC could continue to serve meat under the license,” the complaint states. “While the CACC had, at all times, previously served meat at its events, it apparently was not licensed to do so. When plaintiffs’ son obtained such a license in attempt to satisfy Mr. Zupan, Mr. Zupan scoffed at it and said that it was insufficient for the CACC’s needs.”
     The CACC created a company to provide general laborers to the cultural center for special events, and people with similar working arrangements as the Petricevics were hired for the new company, according to the complaint. The Petricevics asked to be hired too, but say they were told to “keep quiet and continue working.”
     When Zupan created a company to provide catering services at CACC events, he again refused to hire them, but told them “that they better keep their mouths shut and again threatened to put plaintiffs and their family in jail,” they say in the complaint.
     The Petricevics claim they were subjected to other forms of harassment and discrimination.
     Zupan “constantly referred to Ivo as ‘Chetnik,’ a term that refers to Serb nationalist and monarchist paramilitary organizations. Many Croatians consider such groups to be radical and fascist, and therefore consider the term to be derogatory and offensive when used against those not actually affiliated with the organizations,” the complaint states.
     “Mr. Zupan was well aware that plaintiffs and their family were in no way affiliated with such groups and were victims of the Bosnian War. Moreover, Ivo told Mr. Zupan on numerous occasions that he was highly offended by Mr. Zupan’s use of the term toward him, and that he was suffering a substantial amount of emotional distress as a result.”
     The Petricevics claim Zupan made sexually offensive comments and gestures to Ivo and their young son.
     “Mr. Zupan would frequently stand beside Ivo, grab his own genital with his hands, and state ‘this is for you,’ or substantially similar words to that effect. This sort of behavior occurred between three to four times per month on average,” the Petricevics say.
     After working for 10 years in this hostile environment, without proper pay or employment benefits, the Petricevics say, they wrote letters to defendant Matosevic and to Steve Matulich, treasurer of the CACC executive board, seeking assistance.
     “However, both Mr. Matosevic and Mr. Matulich refused to meet with plaintiffs or assist them in any way. Thereafter, Mr. Zupan approached plaintiffs and threateningly stated ‘you have nothing to say to others. I am the law here and what I say goes,'” the Petricevics say in the complaint.
     About two months later Matosevic fired the Petricevics and sent their children a letter telling them that Z&Z Cleaning’s services were being terminated. Matosevic included a final check for the Petricevics’ estimated final hours of work with the letter, they say.
     A third plaintiff, Joe Martinez, says he was treated in a similar fashion by the CACC since he began working there in 2007.
     “On the weekends he would work up to 14 hours a day. He was not paid overtime. He was told that his pay was being deducted for his medical insurance that the Center was providing for him,” the complaint states. “However, he later found out that he had no medical benefits. Mr. Martinez was never paid this money back that was supposedly going toward his medical benefits.
     “In addition, Mike Zupan would often yell and humiliate Mr. Martinez in front of customers and other employees of the center.
     “In August of 2012, Mr. Martinez became very ill. He was hospitalized. He sent in doctors’ notes to the defendants. It was at this time he found out he had no medical insurance. Within days of his illness, he received a termination letter from the Center.”
     The plaintiffs seek punitive damages for wrongful termination, labor violations, and emotional distress.
     They are represented by Rachel Renno with Bowman & Associates, of Folsom.

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