Servers and bussers at a popular Korean restaurant say they were forced to work 18-hour shifts without overtime, attend church before work on Sundays, and "volunteer" their time picking vegetables at a farm outside the city. According to a federal lawsuit they filed against the management of the restaurant, any refusal to heed the owner's extraordinary demands resulted in humiliation, termination, and threats of blacklisting and deportation.
Kum Gang San restaurant is a mainstay in Manhattan's Koreatown, open for business 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Its Queens location is a cornerstone of community celebrations in downtown Flushing. Throughout the weekend, weddings and baby showers crowd the banquet hall and private rooms, while diners in the main rooms can enjoy platters of meat cooked on tableside grills, unlimited plates of banchan, or Korean side dishes, and bubbling stone bowls of stew.
But for the restaurant's waiters and kitchen workers, the hours were often brutal, sometimes extending into 18-hour shifts with 7-day work weeks, for which they received no overtime pay and sometimes not even a break, according to the lawsuit, which was filed last year by eleven former employees.
Tae Ho Kim, a tall, lanky 50-year old who waited tables at the restaurant for 15 years and one of the plaintiffs in the case, did not want to sue at first. Working at Kum Gang San was his first job in New York City, and he had risen to the position of head captain. But he said conditions at the restaurant had become unbearable. "We wanted to have a dialogue with the owner to fix some issues," Kim said. "But instead of engaging in a conversation, his behavior got worse and worse."
According to Kim, more than 30 waiters had originally been interested in participating in a lawsuit. But after finding out about the complaint, Kim said owner Ji Sung Yoo called all the waiters into a meeting and threatened to report them to immigration authorities and blacklist them from further employment in the Korean community if they participated. Most of the waiters withdrew. Kim testified through a translator that the owner said he would use all his influence to ensure that Kim would never work in New York again.
Overtime was nonexistent for Kum Gang San waiters and bussers like Morales and Ventura (who declined to use their first names). While on catering trips across the Northeast region, it wasn't uncommon to find themselves working from 7 a.m. until 2 a.m., arriving back in New York by dawn, and getting one or two hours of sleep before reporting for work the next day.
Janchi Janchi, a prepared food shop inside Manhattan's Kum Gang San restaurant (photo by Nabil Rahman)
"It would be one thing if the managers asked us once in a while to work extra for no pay," Park Chul Gon, a waiter with Kum Gang San for more than ten years, said in an interview. "But one time became two times, two times became three, and pretty soon, it was just a requirement, to work additional hours without any compensation." On most weekends, a 12-hour work day was standard, for which they received the same daily rate and no overtime.
But beyond overtime and wage violations, the former employees also said that they had been assigned by superiors to work for free in a number of operations outside of the restaurant, including Assi Plaza, a Flushing-based food court, and Janchi Janchi, the prepared food store next to the Kum Gang San in downtown Flushing, all of which were also owned by Kum Gang's parent company. Park recalled a manager sending him to "volunteer" at Assi Plaza.
"Isn't it strange that they used the word 'volunteer' to pressure us to work?" he remarked in an interview. "It's a word that has a good meaning, but in this case, it was used to exploit us." Waiters and bussers were also asked to launder tablecloths, mow the lawn, and shovel snow at the owner's house, as well as help move the owner's son to a new residence, according to the complaint.
The Korean employees also spoke of being pressured to attend the Sunday church services the owner had established in the Flushing Kum Gang San, which required being at the restaurant at least 90 minutes before their scheduled shift. Some workers who didn't attend received a reduced work schedule or were fired. On top of this, the waiters were also expected to take turns paying $150 or more out of their own pocket to pay for the catered food served after the sermon.
Waiters also testified about having to spend their days off picking cabbages and chili peppers at a farm in New Jersey owned by a friend of the owner, essentially gathering ingredients for the kimchi that the restaurant serves and sells. Song Jong Hyep, a young waiter participating in the lawsuit, recalled being notified of this obligation via fliers posted on the restaurant's bulletin board.
"The flier said, 'Let's go on a picnic and eat barbecued meat together!'" he said in an interview. "But we're not in the 1960s—it's not like we can't eat meat these days. We knew we were only going to have to work for free on our day off."
Celebrating the 11 year anniversary of the New York Kum Gang San Restaurant Church, Owner Ji Sung Yoo, second from right, with the church pastor, congregants and visitors (Photo courtesy of Church Ilbo)
For Song and other waiters who declined to pick vegetables, their refusal came with a price. According to Song, the owner told everyone who hadn't worked on the farm to drop on their knees and beg for his forgiveness, or leave. Song didn't work for four weeks. Others were denied work for longer than that and effectively fired.
This is not the first time that Kum Gang San restaurant has been accused of violating labor laws. In 2011, the New York State Department of Labor found Kum Gang San's Manhattan restaurant guilty of numerous violations, including skimming $550,973.03 in wages to 66 employees, failing to provide at least 24 hours of consecutive rest in a work week, and failing to maintain adequate wage statements and accurate payroll records. The DOL fined the restaurant nearly $2 million. Yoo is currently appealing this decision on the basis of how the DOL calculated the length of meal breaks. In 2005, the DOL had found Yoo guilty of not paying workers correctly or maintaining proper payroll records, for which he paid a penalty of nearly $140,000.
Yet the Department of Labor investigations did not lead to improvements in working conditions, the workers said. Instead, in some of the more damning testimony from the trial, Song testified that he along with several other waiters had been directed to falsify three years' worth of timecards for all of the restaurant's staff. According to him, these time cards were prepared for submission to the Department of Labor. For weeks at a time, sometimes until as late as 4 a.m., Song said he and his colleagues punched the blank cards to indicate a three-hour break time in the middle of the workday to ensure that employees appeared to be working 8-hour days.
Although they endured these conditions for years, the workers involved in the suit felt they had little choice but to comply. Many pointed to the relative prestige and good reputation of the owner, Ji Sung Yoo, in the Korean community, as well as the power of their managers to limit their future work opportunities. They also believed that many of the conditions they had experienced at Kum Gang San, such as not receiving overtime, are endemic within the Korean restaurant industry in general.
In recent years, high-profile restaurateurs and celebrity chefs like Daniel Boulud and Mario Batali have also concluded million-dollar class action settlements with their employees on wage theft charges, as well as established chain and fast food restaurants like TGIFridays, Subway and Taco Bell.
These cases raise issues commonly seen when low-wage immigrant workers report labor law violations—intimidation, lack of knowledge concerning labor laws, fear of retaliation, and being blacklisted from further employment.
According to a 2009 study of wage theft [PDF] among low-wage workers in New York City, foreign-born workers were more than twice as likely to experience a minimum wage violation as those workers born in the United States. For tipped workers in the study, many of whom work in the restaurant industry, nearly 40% did not receive the tipped minimum wage. In all, the study estimated that those working in low-wage industries in NYC lost more than $18.4 million per week as a result of these violations.
"People will say, 'Some of these immigrant-owned businesses, they don't know what they're doing, they're violating the laws,'" says Daisy Chung, executive director of ROC-NY, a workers' center that organizes for improved restaurant industry conditions. "But it's across the board. We see the same thing happening at establishments regardless of who owns the restaurant."
Chung also pointed out the biases in a legal system that distinguishes between tipped and regular workers. "There's no other industry where customers are expected to pay employees' wages. That affects our policies and sets up a mentality in which this industry operates outside the rule of law." ROC-NY is currently engaged in a campaign to eliminate the tipped minimum wage.
The signage at Manhattan's Kum Gang San restaurant (photo by Nabil Rahman)
The trial for the Kum Gang San workers' suit wrapped up last Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Manhattan. The nine Korean waiters and kitchen workers and two Latino bussers who filed the suit were represented by lawyers at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and the law firm of Shearman and Sterling. The judge's decision is expected sometime this summer.
Three defendants, owner Ji Sung Yoo and two of his managerial staff, including Yoo's brother, Kyung Le Yoo, were called to the stand.
Yoo disputed the accusations concerning the falsified time cards, and said of his employees, "They...were like family. And I know them very well."
Yoo declined multiple requests to comment on the allegations. His lawyer has not returned requests for comment.
After leaving Kum Gang San, Kim was let go from two other Korean restaurants without explanation. Park also ended up leaving the restaurant and the dining industry altogether. Both bussers involved in the suit also left Kum Gang San last month, in part because managers reduced their work days significantly, thus making it impossible to make a living.
For Song, his departure was perhaps the most dramatic. In 2011, after slipping in the restaurant kitchen and injuring his back, the restaurant offered to pay for limited acupuncture treatments in lieu of workers' compensation. But after managers pressured him to stop receiving treatment on the restaurant's dime, he returned to Korea, having no other choice to continue his care without medical insurance. "I had big plans for my New York life, but it all shattered," Song says.
Beyond claiming their unpaid wages, the employees hope that the suit will ultimately result in improved working conditions at Kum Gang San and beyond. Standing outside the courthouse, Song reflected, "Getting the wages we are owed is important. But honestly, beyond that, I hope that we can build a better Korean community where we aren't squeezing each other for every last penny. That is the bigger goal we have in doing this."
Ventura, who speaks limited English, added through a translator, "Through this process, I've learned that the law backs you up. It's not like one has to work so many hours without getting paid. We all have rights in this country."
Sukjong Hong is a writer and artist based in Brooklyn. She was a 2012-13 Open City fellow at the Asian American Writers' Workshop, covering stories in Flushing, Queens. Her writing has appeared in Al Jazeera America, Triple Canopy, and Racialicious, among other outlets.
[UPDATE] The restaurant's management sent us this statement about this article, which we are publishing in full.