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.”
Since the story came to public light last year through a scathing Gothamist report by Sukjong Hong, the boss, Ji Sung Yoo, and other managers have insisted they followed the law. But they seemed remarkably tight-lipped when it came to informing their workers of what the law was.
According to Choi’s testimony, the management never informed her about state wage standards and “did not advise her that the restaurant’s invasion of the tip pool would entitle her to an undiminished minimum wage.… she never saw a posted notice about her rights under the law to receive a minimum wage and overtime and never received a wage statement.”
Another worker, Eutemio Morales, who normally worked as a busser and occasionally worked eighteen-hour shifts on catering jobs outside the city, recalled getting tasked with other favors for owner Ji Sung Yoo, like clearing snow and weeding the garden at his home.
Jin Park, another waiter who reported having his tips “taxed,” recalled in his testimony that a few years ago, something seemed to change: “I remember that one day during morning roll call, [manager] Chunsik Yoo told us not to mention hours worked or daily rate of pay to any Department of Labor officials, [and it was] after this incident that my pay rate switched from a daily rate to an hourly pay rate.” The management’s newfound generosity wasn’t quite voluntary, though—the state Labor Department had just cited the restaurant for major violations, including the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages.
Still, the labor issues dragged on, even after the state’s intervention, and a few workers took the extraordinary step of filing a lawsuit in 2012. According to the lawyers, a number of other workers initially sought to join the action in addition to the eleven plaintiffs, but later decided it was too risky.
Despite the boss’s repeated denial of wrongdoing, the workers were vindicated this week with damage awards of up to several hundred thousand dollars each—an extraordinary win, since many similar suits end in a settlement. Judge Michael Dolinger stated that the legal requirement that workers be fully informed of their rights at work was “particularly salient in the urban restaurant industry, much of which not only relies on relatively poor and uneducated employees, but thrives on the hiring of immigrants who often have little or no English language skills, and who may live in communities of fellow immigrants who are similarly isolated and disadvantaged.”
According to Kenneth Kimerling, legal director for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and an attorney on the case (along with LatinoJustice PRLDEF), while the owners continue to fight the verdict, the massive awards might serve as a warning to other restaurant owners, or “cause other workers to consider filing lawsuits or complaints with the Department of Labor.” Historically, Kimerling noted, structural barriers often deter workers from coming forward, because “there are always implicit and often explicit threats of retaliation based on status,” including the risk of being blacklisted from future job opportunities in their close-knit communities.
In the announcement of the verdict, former server Tae Ho Kim stated, “There are a lot of restaurants out there that fail to pay the proper amount of wages, and I really wish they’d run the restaurants properly. … We were intimidated and threatened throughout the trial, and we’re glad this is over.”
Across the restaurant industry, wage theft and other labor violations are rife, but immigrant workers are especially vulnerable to abuse and intimidation. This climate of fear amounts to the hidden tax on immigrant communities, as their coerced silence, rooted in exploitative paternalism, subsidizes the ambiance of upscale restaurants and keeps workers cheap and loyal.
Following the judge’s ruling, The New York Times reported that the bosses insisted they weren’t given a fair hearing: “We don’t have enough money to hire good lawyers. That’s one of the reasons we cannot explain at the court.”
The workers were far poorer, but their stories spoke for themselves in the courtroom, and breaking the silence finally paid off.