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Picket lines are forming in Chinatowns across America. Workers seek millions in damages.

For the three years that he worked at Z & Y Restaurant, a mainstay of San Francisco’s Chinatown, John Wang said he has never received overtime pay or state-mandated meal breaks, despite often working 11 hour shifts, six days a week.

One of the few servers who spoke fluent English, Wang eventually learned of his rights in the workplace and decided to fight for them. In 2018, he rallied a dozen fellow employees, all immigrants from China and Taiwan, and filed a claim with the state for lost wages, for alleged failure to pay minimum wage and sick leave.

“I wanted to make sure that everybody stuck together and knew what’s going on,” Wang, 56, told NBC Asian America. “Besides the money, we’re sending the message to other immigrant workers that you can stand up for yourselves.”

Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, Chinatowns in particular have become a hotbed of labor protests and legal challenges, many of which are concentrated in the hard-hit hospitality sector. Nationally, 90 percent of small Asian-owned businesses lost revenue last year, a rate higher than for other racial groups, according to a March study from the New York Federal Reserve. (Aside from Chinese workers, Chinese restaurant owners in Chinatown also hire many Latino and Southeast Asian immigrants.) 

Last month, the owners of the Sichuanese restaurant agreed to pay 22 employees $1.61 million in a hefty wage theft settlement, including nearly $600,000 in tips that the workers say were withheld from them. Five worker leaders, including Wang, reached a second settlement of $70,000 for the alleged retaliation they experienced for speaking out. Wang, who got sick while organizing, said his bosses refused to rehire him after he recovered a few weeks later, inflicting severe emotional and financial stress on him and his wife.

In addition to the settlement money, the owners also agreed to implement new policies, such as paid workers’ rights training, fair scheduling practices, transparent tip distribution and bilingual employee manuals.

“We’re at a particular moment right now where the pandemic and anti-Asian racism has further exposed long-standing issues in the restaurant industry and low-wage work industry,” said Shaw San Liu, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, a grassroots organization that worked closely with the workers at Z & Y Restaurant.

Seth Weisburst, an attorney for the owners of Z & Y Restaurant, said his clients “vigorously deny that they engaged in any illegal conduct.” They made the “difficult decision” to settle, he said, because they didn’t want to spend “significant resources on attorneys’ fees and several years in court.” 

“The restaurant and its owners never ‘stole’ any wages or tips from employees, nor did they retaliate against any employees,” he wrote in a statement. “That simply did not happen.” 

Wage theft has been long-standing issues in low-income immigrant enclaves, particularly in the restaurant industry. 

From 2010 to 2012, the Department of Labor’s wage and hour division conducted a compliance sweep of nearly 9,000 full-service restaurants and found that nearly 84 percent of them had violated labor standards, which included wage and tip violations. 

Palyn Hung Mitchell, a staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus who worked on the Z & Y settlement, said “low-wage, immigrant workers of color” are more likely to experience exploitation “no matter the race of their boss.” 

They’re less likely to know and defend their rights, she said, because of language barriers, a fear of deportation or retaliation and a single-minded focus on supplying “food and shelter for themselves and their families.” 

In New York City, Joy Luck Palace, a shuttered dim sum parlor, was ordered in 2019 to pay 19 former employees nearly $1 million in stolen wages, from failure to minimum wage and overtime. To date, labor organizers say none of the employees have received any money from the court judgement. 

Since the spring, they’ve been protesting in reaction to the attention the media and local politicians have given to Patrick Mock, a defendant and co-owner who has been seen as a leader and face of Chinatown advocacy during the pandemic. They’ve also been at the forefront of the fight to pass the Securing Wages Earned Against Theft (SWEAT) bill, a piece of legislation that would allow workers to put a lien on their employers and strengthen wage theft enforcement. 

Mock did not respond to NBC Asian America’s request for comment. 

Sarah Anh, a labor organizer with the Flushing Workers Center, said the strength of labor movements in New York’s Chinatown can be attributed to the presence of a robust restaurant union and community organizations.

“I think Covid-19 has been an eye-opener in a lot of ways,” she said. “We see the callousness from bosses who don’t really care about their employees. They’re just driven to make the most money possible.”

In Boston, three local Chinese grocery stores were ordered in May to pay nearly $1 million for alleged wage theft and other labor violations. Two years earlier, the Chinatown restaurant Happy Lamb Hot Pot reached a wage theft settlement of nearly $900,000 with 14 former employees.

The owners of Happy Lamb Hot Pot did not respond to a request for comment.

Karen Chen, executive director of the Boston chapter of the Chinese Progressive Association, said the pandemic has compounded the sense of economic anxiety that was already prevalent in the community. 

“People were concerned about what their rights are when things reopen,” she said. “They want to know if someone in the workplace got Covid, or if a customer got Covid, would they have to shut down again?” 

In Chinatown, organized labor is steeped in history.

“Chinatown workers were unionized in the early days of San Francisco,” Liu said, noting that 19th century Chinese railroad workers went on strike after finding out they made less than their white counterparts. “From the beginning, they’ve always come together to fight back and demand more justice.”

More recently, Liu said, a landmark case laid the groundwork for the immigrant workers at Z & Y and elsewhere. In 2014, some 300 employees organized and won a record $4 million wage theft settlement against Yank Sing, a storied dim sum parlor that won a James Beard Award in 2009. The owners have since implemented workplace scheduling and promotion policies, legal breaks and health care benefits.

“The Yank Sing campaign was a really important example to workers across the country of what low-wage immigrant workers can do if they stood together and got support from community groups,” Liu said. “They can not only hold employers accountable for past workplace abuses but also push them to make changes.”

Hung Mitchell, of Asian Law Caucus, said the success of the Z & Y case can encourage other restaurant workers to organize for better conditions.

“Ultimately,” she said, “It’s about: How do we ensure the jobs we’re trying to desperately bring back are better jobs? How do we ensure the workplaces we’re trying so hard to keep open are safe and healthy workplaces?”

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