– A lawsuit filed in federal court this month alleges a Dunkin' Donuts franchisee with more than a dozen Chicago locations engaged in wage theft by making workers pay for cash register shortages and manipulating time cards so as not to owe overtime.

Lead plaintiff Christina Padilla, 23, who worked as a shift supervisor at a Dunkin' Donuts in downtown Chicago before quitting in August, said she was instructed to dock workers' paychecks to make up for cash register shortages and to deduct time from their recorded work hours so that they only got paid for their scheduled shifts, even if they worked well beyond to finish up closing tasks.

"It made me feel real uncomfortable," Padilla said after a news conference outside the downtown store, where supporters chanted "dunk doughnuts, not wages" and held painted inner tubes decorated with shredded paper to look like rainbow sprinkles.

Surrounded by her attorneys and organizers from the worker center Arise Chicago, Padilla told a cluster of TV cameras that "the owners seem to rely on revolving doors of workers."

"We're here to say that this can be such a better place to work," Padilla said. "If the workers get paid correctly, treated with respect, they will stay."

The lawsuit, which is seeking class-action status, names as defendants Sirajuddin Virani, who owns 16 Dunkin' Donuts franchises, and Faisal Merchant, who calculates and processes the payroll for Virani's franchises.

Reached by phone, Virani, 62, said he had just learned of the lawsuit Wednesday morning and was "very surprised" to hear about the allegations, which he denied.

"We follow all the rules and regulations and everything," said Virani, who said he has owned Dunkin' Donuts franchises for 30 years. "I don't think that is a right comment from them. I don't think it has ever happened like that."

Merchant, who Virani said is director of operations, could not be reached.

Padilla, who said she worked at three Dunkin' Donuts locations in downtown Chicago over three years, is joined in the lawsuit by co-plaintiff Jessica Zamudio, who worked at one location for six months. The lawsuit identifies three locations where the two women worked where the wage theft is alleged to have occurred. All are owned by Virani.

One of the plaintiffs' attorneys, Lam Ho with Community Activism Law Alliance, estimates 100 people could join the lawsuit, based on the number of employees who worked at Virani's franchise locations over the past 10 years.

Carolyn Morales, an organizer with Arise, said wage theft is one the biggest issues the organization sees.

A 2008 report from the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which studied 1,140 low-wage workers in Chicago and suburban Cook County, found that nearly half of workers experienced at least one pay-related violation in the previous workweek. On average, workers lost $50 out of average weekly earnings of $322, or 16 percent of their earnings. Applied to the whole population of low-wage workers in the area, that translates to $7.3 million of lost wages a week, the study said.