For $35 at Kum Gang San, the famous Korean restaurant group based in Flushing, Queens, you can get a good deal on a platter of fresh Golbi beef with special sauce. And for many years, that’s how much a worker typically got paid for an all-day shift.
A federal court ruling this week revealed many other raw deals served to the KGS workers over the years, from eighteen hour catering shifts for lavish banquets, to being forced to siphon off part of their tips to management. And the work didn’t stop at the edge of the restaurant’s faux forest interior. Outside their normal work schedule, workers said they were occasionally pressed to “volunteer” their labor on a local farm, picking cabbage for the restaurant’s signature kimchee—plus periodically tending to the owner’s garden, or attending, at their boss’s behest, a church service where they were pressured to tithe a few day’s wages to pay for the event.
According to the 150-page court decision, workers were effectively paid far less than minimum wage for years, while working around the clock. It all added up to a monumental award of $2.67 million split among eleven employees. This comes on top of nearly $2 million in still unpaid fines from the state Department of Labor for previous wage violations and other abuses. It’s not clear whether the workers can collect on the damages, though, as the owner continues to deny the charges.
KGS’s seemingly impeccable service—around the clock, seven days a week, with endless barbecue and sushi rolls—masked less glamorous labor practices behind the scenes. Young Mi Choi, testified about working five to six days a week, sometimes with no days off:
Her shifts ran from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., but she would have to work an additional hour once a week—on weekends—when the restaurant was very busy. She had a single break of approximately one and one-half hours, although it was sometimes shortened to less than an hour during busy days.… At the start she received $30.00 per day. In May 2007 she was raised to $35.00 daily, and her pay remained at that level until she quit.
And when Choi objected to the restaurant’s skimming a portion of the workers’ tips, the manager “told her—obviously falsely—that the deduction was ‘a tax’ and invited her to quit if she did not wish to acquiesce.”