Their first jobs as new immigrants were at Subways. They never received checks, they say.

When Khadengra Subedi immigrated to the U.S., he said, the first job he was offered was at a Subway sandwich shop in San Francisco. Subedi, a Nepali father of two, needed to get on his feet, so he took it.

In the nine months he worked there last year, he said, he never received a pay stub. Instead, he was paid $14 an hour in cash, and some months those payments didn’t come on time. Running the restaurant by himself for large chunks of his 10-hour days, he said, he often couldn’t take breaks, even to use the bathroom.

“I am first time in the U.S.,” he told NBC News. “I did not know about the minimum wage, overtime, sick pay. … I came here with my family. I must work any job.”

Now, the California Labor Commissioner’s Office is investigating the franchise where he worked and six other Subways under the same ownership in connection with allegations of several labor law violations against their mostly immigrant employees, many of whom say they were paid well below San Francisco’s $18.67-an-hour minimum wage — or not paid at all.

Fast-food and service jobs are part and parcel of new immigrant life in the U.S., especially for those who don’t speak English fluently.

Previous lawsuits and investigations highlight what advocates say is a pattern of abuse against immigrant workers at Subway franchises nationwide.

Their situations came to light when, last year, one of the workers approached representatives at Trabajadores Unidos Workers United, a San Francisco-based labor union, which partnered with the nonprofit organization Legal Aid at Work, a group that provides free legal services to workers. Ten workers have come forward to them so far, they said, and based on their accounts, the group estimates 25 have been affected over the last three years.

The seven Subway restaurants, all in San Francisco, are owned by one couple, Christopher Van Buren and Marta Gebreslasie, who operate two corporations that together own the seven franchises.

Trabajadores Unidos and Legal Aid at Work representatives say the vast majority of employees hired by the two were and are immigrants. Some employees were paid under the minimum wage, and they received cash payments in envelopes, according to the original complaint filed by the two organizations.

A selfie of Monica Ramirez wearing a black cap and shirt that both say
A selfie of Monica Ramirez wearing a black cap and shirt that both say

NBC News reviewed photos of Subedi’s envelopes, which he saved, and cross-referenced the dollar amounts written on them with the corresponding hours on his time cards. Others who were paid the minimum wage during their regular hours didn’t receive overtime pay, according to advocates who cross-referenced their pay stubs and time sheets.

Trabajadores Unidos and Legal Aid at Work sent in the complaint, and, in May, the couple were sent a notice by the California Labor Commissioner’s Office, viewed by NBC News, asking them to discontinue the illegal labor practices. Their wage violations spanned three counts: paying less than the California minimum wage of $16 an hour, paying less than the San Francisco city minimum wage of $18.67 an hour and paying less than the new state fast-food worker minimum wage of $20 an hour, instated in April.

Advocates at the two organizations say it’s unclear whether any real changes have been made since they received the notices, and the Labor Commissioner’s Office says the investigation is ongoing.

“We take these matters very seriously and are looking into the alleged claims,” a spokesperson from Subway’s corporate office said. “Our restaurants are independently owned and operated, and franchisees are required to follow federal, state and local laws.”

Van Buren and Gebreslasie had a franchise manager whom former workers identified as a woman named Shila Acharya Thapa. Workers say that from her hiring practices, they feel Thapa wanted to hire new immigrants who struggled to speak English.

“The manager wants to hire the maximum Nepalese people and Burma people,” Subedi said.

“They do not understand the English language, the minimum wage or the overtime, sick time like me.”

Thapa didn’t reply to phone calls or text messages seeking comment. Van Buren and Gebreslasie didn’t respond to requests for comment on their personal phone number or through their lawyers.

Both Subedi and another former employee, Monica Ramirez, 50, who worked at a different location for two months in 2019, said Thapa was the one they interacted with the most. Subedi said Thapa told him to lie if anyone asked him what he earned and to say it was the minimum wage. Ramirez said she caught Thapa on multiple occasions editing her time sheet to say she had clocked out earlier than she had.

“There were no breaks,” Ramirez said in an interview translated from Spanish. “I just kept working until closing time.”

Subedi said that, living on a $14-an-hour wage for nine months, he struggled to pay his bills and provide for his children. He had to borrow money from friends to survive, he said.

“San Francisco is so expensive,” he said. “I am the only worker in my family. … It was difficult at that time.”

One month, Ramirez said, she didn’t receive a paycheck at all. When she approached the owners and the manager about it, she was met with aggression and screaming, she said. And in the time it took her to find another job, she said, she missed her rent payment.

“I asked [the owner] Marta, ‘If you can commit to paying me on time, I’ll stay,’” Ramirez said. “She just looked down. She didn’t say yes. … So I decided to quit.”

Though it has now been a few years since she has worked there, she said, she still hasn’t been paid for nine days of work.

Both Subedi and Ramirez have found better jobs with checks that meet minimum wage requirements and offer benefits, overtime and breaks. But advocates say they fear for those who still work at the franchises and at the thousands of others nationwide.

Previous cases of exploitation at Subways

There are 20,605 Subway locations across the U.S., according to the chain’s website. And some estimates say 30% to 50% of them are owned by immigrants. Subway has faced controversy in the past, not only for franchise owners’ exploiting immigrant workers, but also for struggles the immigrant owners themselves face.

A 2021 lawsuit accused the restaurant chain of preying on Asian immigrants, encouraging them to open franchises and then targeting them with unnecessary fees, causing the businesses to go under. The case was voluntarily dismissed.

A Subway spokeswoman told the New York Post at the time that the company “is proud of its diverse franchisee network, many of which are small or minority-owned business owners.”

An investigation last year by the U.S. Labor Department into a string of Bay Area Subway franchises revealed owners hired workers as young as 14 and 15 to work long hours and operate dangerous equipment. Owners also withheld tips and failed to pay regular wages to their staff members, it found.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ordered the owners to pay nearly $1 million in back wages.

A lawsuit by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission this year accused owners of a Seattle Subway franchise of creating a hostile work environment for Black employees and instructing a manager not to hire Black workers. The owners of the franchise eventually agreed to pay $25,000 to settle the suit.

“It’s no coincidence that this is happening over and over again with Subway restaurants and with other fast-food companies, as well,” said Alexx Campbell, a lawyer with Legal Aid at Work who is advocating for the San Francisco workers. “The whole model is set up in such a way that it encourages the smaller franchises to lower costs as much as they can to squeeze every penny out of their labor force.”

It’s a pattern of abuse toward recent immigrant workers that Miriam Medellin Myers, an organizer at Trabajadores Unidos, said she has seen in other industries, too.

“Part of it is just this culture of fear, where people feel like they cannot speak up because if they speak up, they will lose their job, they will lose their housing, they will lose their livelihoods,” she said. “It’s such a traumatic thing to come to a country and not know the language, and it’s so expensive to live in the Bay Area already. So when someone’s offering you a job, it’s great, you want to take it.”