Saigon Grill workers awarded $4.6M

October 22, 2008 2:54:34 PM PDT
Payday finally arrived Tuesday for 36 immigrant delivery workers who claimed to have toiled for years at restaurants without proper wages. A federal magistrate ordered the owner of several popular Vietnamese cafes to pay more than $4.6 million to a group of ex-employees who said they had received substandard wages.

The court said the workers, all Chinese immigrants with limited English skills, had largely been living off the tips they earned cycling orders of hot food around the city for the small Saigon Grill chain.

The restaurant asked no questions about the workers' immigration status, but also offered little in the way of pay. Their salaries ranged from $340 to $600 per month, no matter how many hours they worked.

The delivery workers didn't exactly go hungry, though: A few were able to bring in as much as $3,500 or $4,000 in tips per month by putting in long hours six or seven days a week.

But the court said even that healthy tip income didn't absolve the restaurant's owner of his responsibility to abide by wage laws.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Dolinger ordered the restaurant to pay back wages and overtime dating to 1999, plus fines and penalties, and to compensate the workers thousands of dollars each for supplying their own bicycles and scooters for the job.

Attorney Kenneth Kimerling, of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which helped bring the case, said: "This should be a warning to anyone out there who thinks they can get away with violating the law and failing to pay immigrant workers their rightful wages."

A lawyer for the Saigon Grill didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment Tuesday.

But before the trial, Saigon Grill attorney Michael Weisberg described the restaurant's primary owner, Simon Nget, as an American success story who was only trying to help fellow immigrants get a leg up.

Nget is a Cambodian refugee who arrived in the U.S. as a teenager, started in the restaurant industry as a waiter and worked his way up to owning his own place.

Weisberg said the workers made a "fortune" once their tips were factored in and were unfairly seeking a quick payday at the expense of a boss who had treated them well.

The workers' lawsuit was one of a growing number of legal complaints alleging exploitation of immigrants in low-pay industries in New York and elsewhere. Federal lawsuits alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act have surged nationwide in recent years.

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