PORTLAND, Maine — As rent bills kept coming, paychecks from a now shuttered Old Port sandwich shop did not. The apparent wage theft left more than a dozen of the store’s employees short-handed and, in some cases, homeless, according to past employees and an attorney and activist helping them.

Pockets opened in July as the city’s only 24/7 sandwich spot in a busy section of downtown. After signs of financial trouble for its owner, former employees said various promises went unfulfilled, from amenities never installed to wages never paid.

Pockets abruptly closed early this month, and the space at 363 Fore St. that previously housed a Dunkin’ Donuts is up for lease.

“It’s a particularly egregious situation,” said DrewChristopher Joy, executive director of the Southern Maine Workers’ Center. “Some of them have given up on the idea that they’ll see that money.”

Pushed over the edge

Most of the former employees are young, with little savings to cushion the blow of lost wages. Among them is 20-year-old Alexandra Rodriguez.

“I’m kind of going through a situation where I’m homeless,” Rodriguez said.

She’s not the only one.

Rodriguez said she was looking for a stable place for her and a 1-year-old child to live and hoped income from Pockets would make that happen.

“I could have been working other places, and I was really disappointed,” Rodriguez said.

Some of the former employees said they were paid at times straight from the cash register after questioning owner Dennis Caris about when their paychecks would arrive.

Shannon O’Brien, 20, who eventually took on managerial roles at the restaurant, said there’s about $12,000 owed to former employees in unpaid wages. Individual employees reported they are owed between $500 and $1,700.

“[Caris] would tell me how the payroll was working,” O’Brien said.

Eventually, the former workers said Caris faded into the background of the business as they took over more and more functions to keep the shop open. Some quit early, but some hung on.

Caris did not respond to a phone message Friday morning or emails responding to a job posting for Pockets that remained on Craigslist as of Monday.

Broker Steve Baumann of Compass Commercial Brokers, which has listed the building for lease, did not respond to calls Monday seeking comment on Caris’ tenure in the building. The building is owned by Eleven Exchange LLC, which is controlled by commercial property owner Joseph Soley.

The promise of higher wages

On Craigslist, Pockets advertised wages between $9 and $11 per hour. O’Brien said that and the promise of better hours caused her to quit her previous job, where she was earning less.

Jeremiah Baker, 18, who worked frequent overnight shifts at the restaurant starting in July, said he did the same.

“I quit my other job to go there, and I thought it was going to work out,” Baker said in a telephone interview.

By mid-August, he said, he had received about $200 for 155 hours of work and was without money to pay for basic necessities. He estimates he’s owed another $1,500, before taxes.

“I couldn’t even get anything to eat for the day, and I couldn’t buy clothes or socks or underwear or anything,” Baker said.

He’s staying at a shelter now and looking for other work.

Joy, with the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, said many of the employees were in situations that made them vulnerable to wage theft.

“It was mostly folks who were using this job to try and improve their living situations, and that’s why it’s tragic that they didn’t get this money, because they really needed it,” Joy said.

What can be done?

Andrew Schmidt, a labor lawyer working with some of the unpaid former Pockets employees, said prospects of a wage and hour lawsuit are slim.

“To pursue the lawsuit would take many many hours, and if he files for bankruptcy or we just can’t find him, then there’s just no money,” Schmidt said. “I potentially would have done the case pro bono if the workers would get paid in the end, but I didn’t think that was going to happen.”

He and staff at the Southern Maine Workers’ Center said they spoke to the Bangor Daily News in hopes that it would tell the story of one unusual case of wage theft in the city and maybe put pressure on Caris to pay.

Joy said the case is unusual for the amounts owed to former employees and for the fact that the employees are willing to speak about it publicly, without the typical concerns in wage cases about maintaining a job or souring a relationship with an employer.

“We see a lot of underreporting of violations of wage and hour laws and that’s because it’s not worth the time and the effort for no outcome,” Joy said. “If you report the employer, then you may lose your job or get worse hours or lose shifts, even though that kind of thing is illegal.”

They and past employees said they have little hope of seeing payments, but they are lobbying Maine Department of Labor officials for help, using a fund that can compensate workers for up to two weeks of unpaid wages.

Julie Rabinowitz, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Labor, said she cannot confirm or deny a wage investigation at Pockets. Rabinowitz said payments from the state’s Wage Assurance Fund require a state investigation that determines the business has closed and that it has no assets.

On Monday afternoon, a moving crew from Pepsico Inc. subsidiary New Bern Transport Corp. removed three large Pepsi display refrigerators from 363 Fore St. and hauled them off in a truck.

A long ordeal

Employees said they for weeks held out hope that they would get paid, bolstered by Caris’ promises for growing the business and making investments.

There also were threats. Multiple employees said Caris told them he would file for bankruptcy in response to continued demands for payments, implying the workers would not see their money.

Schmidt said he didn’t know how the business was organized, and records with the Maine secretary of state’s office do not show a business operating either as Pockets or the name Pockets Sandwich Shops, identified as a trademarked name on the store’s website.

Employees described other complaints and indignities in their time working at the restaurant, including verbal abuse and periods of time where they believed Caris would head to a nearby establishment for drinks.

Rodriguez said Caris returned during one of her shifts to rest on a couch in an area planned for the restaurant’s pizza kitchen.

“He was not making a very good impression on people and that’s why I was like, I can’t be working here anymore,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said she recorded a final meeting with Caris about her payment.

Madeline Gillespie, 18, said another employee had recorded a meeting between Caris and multiple workers to discuss the status of the business and their owed wages.

That came after a long series of promises that didn’t come to pass and other discouraging signs. Gillespie said she started at Pockets on June 28, helping to prepare for its opening. More than a month into operation, Gillespie said contractors came to take the restaurant’s coffee machines. That’s when she had a hunch she’d have to fight to get paid.

And then, Gillespie said, there were more discouraging scenes.

“I left when I saw his car get booted in front of the store and he didn’t have the money to get the boot off,” Gillespie said.

In one case, persistence paid off

On Sept. 1, after hobbling on crutches to plead with Caris that she needed payment to cover surgery for a foot injury, Gillespie got a check for about $720.

It came after weeks of pleading, penning a demand letter, having her mother contact Caris and writing on the store’s Facebook page, which has since been deleted.

Gillespie said a co-worker was “shocked” to hear that she had been paid. And, as far as she knows, she’s the only one.

“He did a lot of damage,” she said.

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.