Saiyel Gonzalez thought it was a good opportunity for her son.
Work five to seven hours serving up food and drinks at concession stands at Petco Park and Chula Vista’s amphitheater; make $80 in cash. It didn’t usually work out to minimum wage, but it was off the books and that meant no taxes. He would be working with other high schoolers, as well as immigrants without legal work permits, for a charity called Humble Hands, he said.
This system of staffing concession stands with would-be volunteers, though not well known, is a critical component of operations at venues across the country. Nonprofit groups like Humble Hands – which helps student athletes, according to its articles of incorporation – provide small battalions of workers. In return, the groups get to keep roughly 10 percent of their stands’ proceeds to advance their charitable mission.
The system is easily abused, venue insiders told Voice of San Diego.
What started as a win-win for professional sports teams and charities has now morphed into a system where some supposed volunteer groups are providing a cheap, off-the-books labor source to third-party concession companies, a Voice investigation found. These concession companies partner and profit share with venue owners and operators, like the Padres, which sometimes rent publicly-owned facilities, like Petco Park, from taxpayers.
Voice spoke to dozens of sources inside the world of concessions at major venues, including six different workers, who’d been paid low, under-the-table wages by supposed charities. We agreed to withhold their names because they were minors at the time or because they were adults, who feared retaliation. We identified at least three different groups paying people to work inside multiple venues across the region, under the guise of volunteering.
One so-called nonprofit at Petco and Snapdragon Stadium wasn’t a nonprofit at all, Voice revealed in August. The group raked in money for nine years, working an average of 12 stands per game, all while claiming to be a softball charity – despite the fact its charitable status had been revoked years earlier.
But one sloppy operator escaping detection for nine years is only a piece of the story. Multiple groups have provided a shadow labor force at venues across the region – from Sports Arena, the former Qualcomm Stadium, Snapdragon, Petco and North Island Credit Union Amphitheater in Chula Vista – that lawyers said violates tax and labor laws.
On top of the labor and tax violations, young people, who are not legally old enough, frequently end up serving alcohol as well at these venues, said Gonzalez’s son and others who have worked at the stands.
“It is an absolute cesspool,” said Jordan Kobritz, a lawyer, minor league baseball team owner and sports management professor. “There are a lot of guilty parties involved: the sports teams, the concessionaires, some of the nonprofits.”
Kobritz, as well as other insiders in the field, said it is cheaper and easier for concessionaires to pay a charity group roughly 10 percent of sales than staff a stand with paid workers.
Using would-be volunteers also allows concessionaires to skip the time-consuming process of hiring and onboarding an employee, said Kobritz.
But the biggest incentive is financial.
Concessionaires across the country “are profiting to tune of billions of dollars a year by utilizing so-called volunteers instead of hiring employees and paying at least minimum wage,” said Kobritz. “They milk the system.”
Lov4Jaro is another group paying people to work at Petco and the amphitheater, according to a relative and Venmo receipts.
The leader of the group Lilianna Osuna disputes this. She says some people receive a “donation” for working at the amphitheater or Petco. She also said she gives donations to some people who don’t volunteer; and that sometimes people volunteer and don’t get paid.
I briefly spoke to her on the phone, but she said a contract she has in place with the concessions company at the amphitheater does not allow her to speak to the media.
Venmo payments from 2021 show Lilianna Osuna paying multiple people after various concerts – from the Jonas Brothers to Pitbull – at the amphitheater. The payments range from as little as $40 to as much as $70.
Pictures from the group’s Instagram account show presumed volunteers at the amphitheater last August and Petco Park in 2022.
In part because of her nonprofit’s actions, Lilianna Osuna has had a falling out with the broader Osuna family over Lov4Jaro. It is the latest iteration of a group she started called the JARO Foundation – which also previously worked out of Sports Arena – meant to honor the legacy of Jorge Alberto Rocha Osuna, who was murdered in a road rage incident in National City.
The Osuna family came to believe Lilianna was abusing the charity.
“She can’t get people out there, so she pays people X amount of dollars, but it’s very minimal,” said Chris Osuna, Jorge’s brother. “It’s not in any way a nonprofit. It’s doing concessions and paying people under the table. It’s running a catering business.”
Around 2018, Lilianna got behind on the nonprofit’s paperwork, Chris Osuna said. This gave him and his siblings an opening to try to stop her.
They registered the name JARO Foundation, so Lilianna could no longer use it. And they also decided to start a nonprofit truly dedicated to Jorge’s memory.
Chris Osuna and his family members are all volunteers, he said. Their new organization is called the JARO Project. It holds surf sessions for underprivileged kids. The group does not raise money through concessions work.
Meanwhile, Lilianna Osuna started up Lov4Jaro.
Lov4Jaro is one of many nonprofits that help staff concessions at the amphitheater. Live Nation, the venue’s owner, doesn’t run concessions itself. Instead, it hires out concessionaire Legends Hospitality.
Stacey Escudero, a spokeswoman for Legends, declined to answer specific questions about whether charities are allowed to pay the people who work for them at North Island Credit Union Amphitheater.
“Legends does not condone participating non-profit groups taking any actions that are contrary to the purpose and intent of the program or to the applicable laws,” wrote Escudero in an email. “We take matters like this very seriously and have taken appropriate action to address this issue.”
Escudero declined to elaborate on what “appropriate action” had been taken.
She also said all volunteers are expected to complete training on food and alcohol service before volunteering at the amphitheater. She did not disclose how Legends verifies whether this training has been completed.
Professional football teams pioneered the use of volunteer groups to plug the labor gap, said Chris Bigelow, who has been a concessions consultant for decades.
“The first place I knew about it was the old Pontiac Silver Dome, where the Detroit Lions played,” Bigelow said.
It made sense. Football has far fewer regular-season home games than any other professional sport – just eight or nine in a typical season. Trying to get hundreds of workers for just a handful of games was near impossible.
Using nonprofits seemed like a winning answer on both sides, Bigelow said.
Churches, youth sports leagues and other groups could raise money for their cause, by getting roughly 10 percent of sales at the stand they staffed. The stadium gets the workforce it needs on game day.
But where it once made sense for volunteers to fill sporadic, occasional staffing needs, the model is now business as usual in venues that host as many as 100 events per year. Nonprofits work concessions in baseball stadiums, basketball stadiums and music venues.
Relying too heavily on nonprofits creates a system that is easily abused, Bigelow said.
Take a Major League Baseball stadium, for instance, where there are 81 home games a year. It’s unreasonable to expect any one nonprofit to work all 81 games, said Bigelow.
And yet, at Petco multiple groups, like Chula Vista Fast Pitch, Humble Hands and others, provide staffing for the entire baseball season.
That should be a red flag, Bigelow said.
By all accounts, Chula Vista Fast Pitch provided a significant amount of staffing to Petco. It brought in dozens of volunteers and staffed some of the most high-earning stands, according to multiple people who worked inside the park.
The Instagram pages of Humble Hands and Lov4Jaro show dozens of presumed volunteers working in concession stands at Petco and Chula Vista amphitheater. A previous version of Lov4Jaro also worked out of Sports Arena. Humble Hands staffed concessions at Snapdragon and the former Qualcomm Stadium.
Team owners and concessionaires need all necessary concession stands to be open during a given event. Millions of dollars are at stake.
The San Diego Padres make roughly 50 cents on the dollar of all concession sales. But the Padres organization doesn’t actually run concessions itself. It contracts with a concessionaire called Delaware North. After labor, inventory and other overhead costs, Delaware North pulls what profit it can out of the other 50 percent.
The whole volunteer labor system helps ensure that enough cash registers are up and running for profits to be maximized.
“It’s the easy way out,” said Luis Rivera, who owns a concessions consulting firm called First Star Solutions. “The system has been abused. It hasn’t been reinvented for quite some time. It’s been like this for 20 years or more.”
There is one way to get the necessary employees without relying on would-be volunteers, he added: “If you pay adequately, you’ll eventually get people.”
The thing that infuriated Saiyel Gonzalez was the booze.
Her son, who was 17, casually mentioned that he had sold some beers working for Humble Hands at the amphitheater.
“You don’t touch alcohol,” she told him.
“No, Mom, I just check ID’s,” he said correcting himself, Gonzalez remembered.
Eventually, he admitted to her that Humble Hands had required him and other minors to sell alcohol the whole time. That was against the law. Depending on the location, only people older than 18 or 21 can sell booze. Gonzalez flipped out.
“You’re never going back,” she told him.
It wasn’t just the alcohol, though.
Gonzalez’s son said he frequently wasn’t allowed to take breaks and that he never received tip money, despite being promised it. He sometimes had his pockets checked to see if he was stealing, he said.
They did not pay him minimum wage.
Two major legal issues come into play when paying people under the table, said Linda Rosenthal, a lawyer and researcher for For Purpose Law Group.
First, if a person is not being paid minimum wage that can be a wage violation, under federal or state law, she said.
Second, if a company isn’t taking out taxes, that violates tax law.
Elizabeth Campos runs Humble Hands. She declined to comment on this story.
“Some of the [workers] are undocumented immigrants. She worked with a lot of kids. She has them all brainwashed,” Gonzalez’s son said. “‘It’s a good job. Stay here,'” she tells them. And for $80 they do it.”
Another person who worked for Campos said they made just $50 a game. The person did not want to be named for fear of retaliation.
Chula Vista Fast Pitch used a similar playbook, said two former employees, who asked that their names be withheld for fear of retribution.
One worker said he frequently saw minors sell alcohol.
Both were paid below minimum wage and under the table. One worker said he made $50 to $60 per game. Another said he made $70 per game and that his shifts lasted as long as ten hours.
Chula Vista Fast Pitch was not an up-to-date nonprofit.
Humble Hands and Lov4Jaro, however, are up-to-date charities, currently in good standing with the Internal Revenue Service. Could their workers be considered volunteers?
Generally speaking, it’s not allowed for nonprofits to pay volunteers, said Rosenthal.
Nonprofits can pay their volunteers a very nominal fee and also reimburse them for expenses, Rosenthal said. But they can’t pay them close to what minimum wage would be and simply call it a donation.
“The bottom line is, if you’re calling someone a ‘volunteer,’ they really need to be a volunteer,” said Rosenthal. “If you’re giving them a stipend, it really has to be not very much.”
Heather Newhart’s granddaughter didn’t even know who she worked for.
She ended up at Petco, because she’d heard from her friends at Mar Vista High School that working concessions was an easy way to make cash, without having to hold down a real part-time job.
Newhart’s granddaughter was 17 at the time. Her point of contact was a 16-year-old girl. The girl would run a group text to find out who could come to what games. She appeared to act almost as a recruiter.
The granddaughter, whose name Voice agreed to withhold because she was a minor at the time, never knew how much money she would make. For one four-game home stand at Petco she made $200. Sometimes, she made more, she said.
Her payments came over Cash App from someone she had never met, she said. They said simply “MDR Donations.”
“We were selling alcohol and so they wanted us to lie about our age,” she said. “There were kids even younger, like 15 and 16, working there [who sold alcohol too.] I didn’t know it was a big deal.”
The outfit would accept any workers it could get, said the granddaughter.
“Pretty much someone brings you up [to the concession stand] and they tell you to come in and you work that day and you keep going, because they need you,” she said. “They need anyone. There was no training ever.”
She got suspicious.
“The more and more I worked there, the more and more I was like, ‘This is not professional and kind of fishy,’” she said.
Her grandmother agreed.
“I was like, ‘Absolutely not. You are done with that,’” said Newhart.
I sent a barrage of questions to the groups responsible for overseeing nonprofits at different venues across the county.
The Padres have repeatedly not responded.
I also reached out to the Mayor’s Office, since Petco Park is city-owned property.
“It’s clear that responsibility for the concessions management falls under the Padres’ purview,” Rachel Laing, a spokeswoman, wrote in an email. She declined to comment on under-the-table pay or minors selling alcohol.
Delaware North officials provided a brief written statement.
“Delaware North strictly prohibits the service of alcohol by minors and any form of compensation for volunteers,” wrote Charles Roberts, a company spokesman, in an email.
After Voice revealed Chula Vista Fast Pitch had been operating as a fake charity in the park for nine years, Delaware North officials told Padres officials they would review and potentially change their procedures for verifying nonprofits. They have not provided details on those changes.
“To ensure the integrity of this program across our operations, including Petco Park, we have committed additional resources to provide an annual review of volunteer groups’ legal status and will implement heightened operational standards in 2024,” Roberts wrote.
In theory, volunteers are supposed to take online trainings about the rules for serving food and alcohol before they are allowed to work inside a venue.
Roberts declined to say whether there was an official verification process for making sure volunteers had received food and alcohol training.
The Padres and Delaware North officials also declined to answer questions about whether the park might be relying too heavily on volunteer groups.
Cory Marshall, a SDSU spokeswoman, also confirmed that nonprofits are not supposed to compensate their volunteers at Snapdragon. SDSU officials verify that each volunteer has received food and beverage training before each event, she wrote in an email.
She added: “It is false to state that ‘SDSU relies on this system of labor.’ The vast majority of staffing at all the university’s venues is provided by Aztec Shops, Ltd. employees, not volunteer groups.”
Humble Hands has worked at least 24 events at Snapdragon, Marshall confirmed. She did not, however, say if the group would be allowed to work future events.
Saiyel Gonzalez’s son still wanted a job, even after she forced him to stop working with Humble Hands. He decided to apply for an actual job at Chula Vista amphitheater.
He works in parking, where he is no longer around alcohol, and makes more money per hour than he did before.
His mom is relieved.
“Wrong is wrong,” said Saiyel Gonzalez. “You’re forcing these kids to sell alcohol. You’re paying them bad. And then you’re claiming to be giving the money away. It’s a little weird to me.”
Hannah Ramirez contributed reporting to this story.