The workers at the popular Korean restaurant group Kum Gang San were forced to work seven-day, 18-hour shifts with no overtime, attend church before work on Sundays, and beg for forgiveness if they refused to "volunteer" their time picking vegetables in the owner's garden. "Isn't it strange that they used the word 'volunteer' to pressure us to work?" one Kum Gang San employee told Gothamist last June. The workers eventually sued their employer, and last week a federal judge awarded them $2.67 million in back wages and damages.
"Defendants not only persisted in paying these and other employees grossly substandard wages and diverting some of their tip income," federal magistrate judge Michael Dolinger writes in his decision, "they made sure to deny the workers any information that would disclose the violations of their rights."
Dolinger noted that the workers "were particularly vulnerable to this type [of] manipulation. All were immigrants, none of whom spoke sufficient English to testify without a Korean or Spanish-language interpreter."
Kum Gang San's Koreatown location closed last month, but its sister restaurants in Rockefeller Center and Flushing remain open. The group's owner, Ji Sung Yoo, has repeatedly denied the allegations, and told the Times through an interpreter that he would appeal: “Business is so bad, about the last two years. We don’t have enough money to hire good lawyers. That’s one of the reasons we cannot explain at the court.”
In 2011, the state Department of Labor fined Yoo's restaurants nearly $2 million for other wage violations; those penalties have gone unpaid.
A 2009 study showed that low-wage workers in restaurants, many of whom are foreign-born, lose more than $18.4 million each week from wage theft. Governor Cuomo recently boasted of recovering $30 million in stolen wages last year, and redistributing them to 27,000 employees.
“I do see this as a victory because this lawsuit, yes, was about getting the money we were owed, but it was also about changing conditions,” one of the plaintiffs, Park Chul Gon, told the Times. “Even though I am no longer working here, I know that this is going to impact the workers who are here now.”
You can read the judge's entire decision below.