En Español Know Your Rights
Source: New York Daily News
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Shortchanged Employees get Paid, Thanks to the Department of Labor

It’s hard
to tell which of Hatsuhana’s two East Side
locations is the fancier one. The upscale Japanese restaurant is frequented by
a fashionably dressed crowd – both Japanese and American – who seem perfectly
happy to pay a pretty penny for their sushi.

But despite
the refined ambience, elegant clientele and steep prices, the Japanese eatery
was not above cheating delivery man Guang Yao Pu, a Chinese immigrant, out of
his tips for the nine months he worked at the 17 E. 48th St. location.

Pu, a Queens resident for six years, was aware of what was
going on – and he was not happy.

"I
read in a newspaper that the Department of Labor helped people with problems at
work," said Pu, 44. "And I called them."

It was the
right decision. State Department of Labor investigators, after interviewing
waitresses, delivery personnel and kitchen staff, found that Pu wasn’t the only
one cheated.

"We
found that the employer owed a total of $254,623 in tips, minimum wages and
overtime wages," said Lorelei Boylan, a young lawyer who is the
department’s director of strategic enforcement. "We arrived at a
settlement agreement that calls for a 25% deposit of the total amount
due."

Pu, who has
a 13-year-old son, wanted nothing more than what belonged to him. Soon he will
receive $4,000 to $5,000. "I am satisfied," he said.

Hatsuhana
is one of at least six cases in which the department has recovered wages and
tips misappropriated by employers adding up to more than $1 million – all of
them in the last four months.

"This
is money that will directly benefit workers," Boylan said.

Last
December, we wrote about Rodrigo Vázquez, a Mexican immigrant who for 12 years,
worked 12 or 13 hours a day, six days a week in the kitchen of the popular
Trattoria Pesce Pasta, on the East Side, and
was never paid overtime. Tired of the exploitation, he left in July 2007.

Assisted by Make the Road by Walking, a Brooklyn-based community organization, Vázquez filed a
formal complaint with the Labor Department, which found that he was not the
only one being cheated. On May 31, the restaurant’s owners agreed to pay
$136,633.73 in back wages, $23,000 of which will go to Vázquez.

The case of
Shun Lee Cafe, also with two locations in Manhattan,
is one of the department’s greatest successes – it recovered a mind-boggling
$608,209.13 in minimum wage and overtime violations.

The $20,000
Greenpoint Car Wash in Brooklyn owed in
minimum wage violations looks small by comparison. But for the workers, it
means getting justly compensated for their hard work.

Thanks to
the Labor Department, 10 employees of another car wash in Brooklyn, Perrier
Auto Wash,
will collect $84,307. 54.

"They
didn’t pay overtime and they didn’t pay you the whole salary," said Félix
Gutiérrez, 52, a U.S.
citizen born in the Dominican
Republic who worked at Perrier for three
years. "It is not fair. I have five children – 5 to 22 – and they are the
reason I work so hard." He is due to get $14,859 in back wages.

The secret
of the department’s success is its policy of aggressively enforcing labor laws
and ensuring that all workers – regardless of immigration status – are
protected by those laws.

With this
in mind, Labor Commissioner Patricia Smith created the Bureau of Immigrant
Workers’ Rights to address the abuses against foreign-born workers statewide.
Its investigators speak two, and even three languages.

Smith has
said her first priority is the protection of workers. "That’s why we
changed the way we do business," she said, "aggressively enforcing
labor laws and ensuring all workers are treated fairly."