Forced to fire undocumented workers, owner of landmark Florida restaurant seeks change


Richard Gonzmart, the fourth-generation owner of the iconic Columbia Restaurant chain based in Tampa, says it’s time for politicians to start listening on immigration.

When federal immigration authorities arrived at his Sand Key restaurant in Clearwater to find outdated and noncompliant work documents for 19 of his employees, he was forced to fire them all — including seven people who had worked with his family for decades.

“With 2,000 employees, it becomes very difficult to monitor it,’’ Gonzmart said in an interview. “We think they’re legal but, when we had to check, we found seven people who have been with me 30 years — paying taxes, had children, grandchildren — and we were required to terminate them.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Tampa would not comment on the case, and Gonzmart said he was still negotiating a resolution to the conflict. But the incident underscores the double scrutiny many businesses face as a new state law layers new immigration enforcement policies to existing federal rules in a way that is exacerbating worker shortages.

It’s a scenario that’s playing out across Florida with restaurants, construction companies and farms searching for workers as the political rhetoric over immigration is clanging up against a tight labor market and expanding population.

Gonzmart is the great-grandson of Casimiro Hernandez Sr., the founder of the historic Ybor City restaurant that is the chain’s anchor. Since its opening in 1905, the company has treated employees as part of the restaurant family, paying them above market wages and benefits, he said.

During the pandemic when the restaurant closed for two months, the company continued paying wages, 401(k) retirement plans, medical insurance and providing 9,000 meals a week to employees and their families. Gonzmart said he now wants stronger protections for migrants who have been here for years.

“A family business sometimes has to absorb a little bit of the burden and loss in order to provide for the people that make our business possible and a success,’’ Gonzmart said.

Tampa’s Columbia restaurant began serving bean soup and café Cubano in 1905. Now the Tampa flagship restaurant occupies an entire city block, seats 1,700 people, and has 15 dining rooms.

Tampa’s Columbia restaurant began serving bean soup and café Cubano in 1905. Now the Tampa flagship restaurant occupies an entire city block, seats 1,700 people, and has 15 dining rooms.

First the pandemic, then a labor squeeze

While the company rebounded from COVID-21 setbacks — exceeding sales from even its best year — he said it now finds itself in the throes of a statewide labor shortage that he believes was made worse by the implementation of Florida’s new immigration law.

“I’m very proud of Gov. DeSantis and everything he’s done. I really am,’’ said Gonzmart, a lifelong Republican. “It gave everybody confidence and that’s why so many people are moving here…But my concern is the governor putting in a law that says those who have an expired driver’s license cannot renew it because they’re no longer legal. They cannot work. Their papers are no longer legal.”

While much of the focus on Florida’s new immigration law has been on its impact on agriculture and construction companies, the state’s pivotal restaurant and lodging industry has drawn less attention, but the repercussions have been profound.

Florida’s new law orders private businesses with more than 25 workers to use the E-Verify platform to check their employees’ eligibility to work in the U.S. It makes it a felony to transport into the state people who enter the country illegally, and it compels hospitals who take Medicaid to ask a patient’s immigration status.

Gonzmart said that many of his employees were hired at a time when the state didn’t require companies to obtain documents showing proof of eligibility to work. Under Florida’s new law, state and local law enforcement officials are authorized to enforce federal immigration laws and, even before the state law took effect on July 1, he said, “many people with papers did not renew them because of the concern that the government was sending them back.”

As DeSantis increased his political focus on illegal immigration in Florida, federal authorities were taking an interest in Gonzmart, head of the 1905 Family of Restaurants – the new name for the former Columbia Restaurant Group, owners of the Columbia Restaurants, Ulele, Goody Goody Burgers, Casa Santo Stefano, Cha Cha Coconuts and Café Con Leche Ybor City.

Under federal law, ICE officials may obtain a warrant to inspect an employer’s documents either through E-Verify or I-9 forms, the documents used to determine an employee’s identity and eligibility to work.

Many of his employees, especially those working in the kitchens and “back of the house” are fathers, sons and brothers, Gonzmart said. So when immigration officials told him the I-9 forms of his most loyal employees were not in compliance and he would have to fire them, he resisted.

“I told them I wouldn’t let them go and they threatened to arrest me,’’ he recalled. “I said, ‘That’s a good idea. Why don’t you all come and arrest me? But let me know when, so I can have cameras here!’ Then, they sent me a $500,000 fine, and I let them go.”

Industry group says others struggle with staffing, too

A Homeland Security Investigations spokesperson said the agency would not comment on “ongoing/pending investigations” and pointed to a voluntary program run by the agency that helps employers identify fraudulent documents supplied by their employees.

Meanwhile, Gonzmart said the incident “almost put us out of business,’’ and while customer demand has rebounded from the pandemic, the inability to find enough new staff has forced him to suspend his catering services and reduce restaurant hours.

Carol Dover, president and CEO of the more than 10,000-member Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, said that Gonzmart is not alone.

Hotels are not opening all rooms because they don’t have enough housekeepers, restaurants that used to be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner are now open for just lunch and dinner, and existing staff puts in extra hours, she said. “Everybody’s having to get creative with their thinking.”

The group holds its annual summit in Fort Lauderdale starting Tuesday.

John Horne, CEO of Anna Maria Oyster Bar and chair of the board for the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, held an informal poll Friday at a gathering of 85 hotel and restaurant members of the Suncoast Chapter of FRLA and, he said, none of them “had or heard of an ICE audit, nor do they want to.”

But, he said, the chilling effect of anti-immigration sentiment has had on Florida’s workforce is real.

“We have people that have been in our state for 20-plus years, that are scared,’’ he said. “They don’t know what to do because the emotion is ‘ICE is around the corner.’ Our state has just become toxic in that feeling of wanting to get rid of all the illegals.”

Horne predicts that when the winter tourism and travel season begins and employers can’t find employees who can pass the E-Verify screening, “it could cause a huge problem.”

He said the association is calling for “a pathway to help these people who’ve paid their taxes, had their social security withheld, become contributing members of our community.”

John Horne, CEO of Anna Maria Oyster Bar and chair of the board of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association.

John Horne, CEO of Anna Maria Oyster Bar and chair of the board of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association.

An appeal to Biden for immigration reforms

On Tuesday, more than 30 Florida public officials asked President Joe Biden in a letter to expand immigration protections for migrants in the U.S. who are without pathways to permanent immigration or whose protections from deportation are at risk.

Horne and Dover agree the border needs to be closed to tamp down on the rising incidents of gangs smuggling in fentanyl and other drugs and criminals engaging in human trafficking but the answer involves addressing the need for workers now with a guest worker or essential worker program.

“We need our immigrants to work,’’ Dover said. But the solution is not amnesty for them, rather a system that allows them to be here as temporary workers, without voting rights and citizenship status but an opportunity to obtain a driver’s license and a promise to stay three to five years.

“They cannot have a criminal record,’’ she said. “But if they want to go to work, and help raise their family, they need to be able to do that, come out of hiding and pay taxes.”

“We are built on a land of migrants,’’ Horne added. “We need to help.”

Elizabeth Ricci, Tallahassee-based immigration lawyer with the law firm Rambana and Ricci, said she is getting calls from “worried employers” who want to help their immigrant employees navigate the immigration system but “the rules are so onerous, it can take up to five years for someone to establish permanent residency.”

“Employers are seeing that their workforce is scared,’’ Ricci said. “A lot of them have told me that their workers are leaving for other states. They try to help those who have not left get legalized, but it’s not a quick fix.”

Julia Maskivker, a Rollins College political science professor who studies labor and immigration trends, said that many of the policies advanced by DeSantis and lawmakers, including SB 1718, “have been designed with complete disregard for its economic consequences.”

Florida’s labor shortage is having an impact on the fact that Florida has the most stubborn inflation rate in the nation, she said.

“If agricultural fields are empty now, that tomato at Publix is going to be four times more expensive. It’s just a ripple effect,’’ Maskivker said.

Gonzmart wants policymakers to do more listening to the people “making the payrolls.”

“I just think politicians are listening too much to the far left or the far right, and it’s people in the middle that care about people,’’ he said. “Look at all of our staff over 118 years. It’s the story of all these hardworking immigrants that suffered, struggled — just as they are today, trying to find their children that opportunity to get an education, to be a valuable resident, a citizen of this country.

“We can’t let everyone in,’’ he adds. “But we have to look to help those who are here and who have been law abiding – to realize a dream.”

Miami Herald staff writer Syra Ortiz-Blanes contributed to this report.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas



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