‘Under the Table’ series prompts calls for investigation, legislation

  • Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, speaks to reporters at the Statehouse in Boston, Jan. 25. AP PHOTO

  • Lin Geng, a former sushi chef at Zen Restaurant, said he worked in the restaurant industry for more than a decade without making as much as minimum wage.

Published: 10/10/2016 8:12:58 PM

NORTHAMPTON — State, federal and municipal leaders are calling for an investigation and new legislation targeting the underpayment of immigrant restaurant workers detailed in a recent Gazette series, “Under the Table.”

The three-part series revealed an underground economy in which at least seven Asian restaurants in Hampshire County paid workers well below the legally required $10-an-hour minimum wage for workweeks that range between 50 and 72 hours.

“The circumstances raised in the reporting by the Gazette are very troubling and should be investigated by the proper authorities. In a time when we see such a widespread gap in income inequality, committing wage theft is morally wrong and unconscionable,” Senate President Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst said in a statement. “An honest day’s work deserves an honest day’s pay.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Richard Neal of Springfield agreed, telling the Gazette that Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey would do the “right thing” by investigating these practices Neal called “exploitive.”

“It is troubling that some of the most vulnerable people in western Massachusetts, and across the country, are not being paid the minimum wage,” Neal said.

Workers interviewed by the Gazette spoke of working long hours for wages that appear to fall below the legal minimum, even without factoring in the time-and-a-half overtime pay that officials say most restaurants must pay. Compliance with the state’s minimum wage law is enforced through the state attorney general’s office, while overtime violations are addressed through the U.S. Department of Labor.

Officials in the attorney general’s office confirmed they will be “taking a closer look into the issues and allegations raised” in the Gazette stories.

“The restaurant industry has many low-wage workers who are vulnerable to exploitation. This series highlights many of the issues in this industry that our office has seen through our efforts to protect workers and level the playing field for honest establishments,” Healey said in a statement.

Workers and activists said the practice of paying workers significantly less than the law requires is standard at other restaurants in the Northeast that draw workers from job agencies in the Chinatown section of New York City.

The Gazette found other Asian restaurants, along with non-Asian ones, that pay at least the minimum wage and treat workers well. But at the restaurants that appear not to be complying with the law, workers reported receiving monthly lump payments that worked out to as little as $6.25 an hour for workweeks as long as 72 hours.

“We will continue to do outreach at the community level to educate workers about their rights and employers about their obligations under state law and will also use our enforcement authority where appropriate,” Healey said. “We always encourage workers who have questions or believe they are being taken advantage of to contact our office.”

Possible legislation

Some legislators are looking to give the state’s enforcement authority a boost by drafting bills that target underpayment. The Senate passed legislation addressing “wage theft” this summer but the House did not address the issue before the session ended in July, meaning lawmakers must go back to the drawing board when a new session begins in January.

“I’m concerned about wage theft in the community, and this series highlighted for me the prevalence of people being exploited and not being paid the minimum wage,” said state Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, who chairs the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development. “And based on that, I intend to do everything I can to make sure wage theft is a priority in our next session, whether it be wage theft in the restaurant industry or wage theft in other industries.”

Scibak said between now and January he plans to work with the attorney general to learn what legislators can do to bolster her office’s enforcement efforts.

“I’m interested in getting their perspective of what we need to do to eliminate this practice and ensure people are getting paid what they’re legally entitled to, and businesses don’t continue to exploit their employees,” he said. “And I would hope that my colleagues, regardless of political party, would agree.”

Additionally, Scibak said he hopes to see more attention drawn to pay practices in restaurants outside of Hampshire County.

“I would hope that this series would lead people to investigate further in terms of what’s happening in other states,” he said.

Ted Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor, said his department could not confirm or deny that it is investigating these or other restaurants for underpaying workers.

The state’s Council on the Underground Economy — a collaborative effort of the attorney general’s office, the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker and several other state and federal agencies — could take up the issue. Council representatives said they must meet before they can say anything about whether or not they will investigate.

“The administration, including the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development and the Department of Revenue, works closely with counterparts across federal and state government and in the attorney general’s office through the Council on the Underground Economy to diligently investigate violations of state wage laws and regulations,” Colleen Quinn, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, said in a statement. “Last year, multiple state agencies worked closely to conduct nearly 30,000 compliance checks and recover $15.5 million in wage restitution, state taxes and unemployment taxes, along with fines and penalties, efforts that will continue to be pursued against employers who skirt the law.”

Karen Chen, co-director of the Chinese Progressive Association, an advocacy group in Boston, said these exploitative practices have endured because too few people talk about them, and because too many employers breaking the rules are not punished harshly.

“I feel like enforcement agencies have to really take this seriously in order to kind of break this whole cycle,” Chen said. “We focus on educating the workers but there ought to be somebody who’s educating the restaurants, too, and letting them know what the consequences are for violating the law.”

Chen said enforcement should prove a powerful deterrent.

“Enforcement has to be so stiff that people feel it’s not worth it to pay under minimum wage,” she said. “The legislators need to take a stronger stand around labor standards and really understand the lives of these workers.”

A heavier hand is key, agreed Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group based in Washington, D.C., that has found states with stiffer penalties see less worker underpayment.

The restaurant owners “should be investigated and if guilty should be subject to large fines,” he said. “If one of their workers stole the amount of money they stole out of the cash register, police would come in and handcuff them and take them to jail, so why should there not be comparable enforcement for owners that are picking workers’ pockets?”

Hold to same standards

Jeremiah Micka, owner of Platform Sports Bar, Tunnel Bar and Union Station in Northampton, said he pays workers a legal wage. All restaurants should be held to the same standards, he said.

“All we look for is a level playing field,” Micka added. “We just want it to be fair.”

Most restaurant owners in Northampton say they take pride in paying workers fairly. But to target those who do not, City Councilors Maureen T. Carney and Alisa F. Klein are drafting legislation to protect vulnerable workers.

“Certainly, people are not getting the wages that they’re due,” Carney said. “Some of these practices are happening and I think it’s very difficult for some folks to follow through with complaints for a number of reasons, such as a fear for their status.”

Carney and Klein said they hope the city will address underpayment — either through ordinance, executive order or both — this fall. At the same time, Carney said she’s interested in discussing ways to boost restaurant owners and other employers that are treating their employees fairly.

“We really do need to find some ways to recognize and support all of those really good employers that are in Northampton,” she said. “That’s a really important piece of this.”

And the ones that are underpaying their workers, she said, should be handled by the attorney general.

“At the least they should try to confirm what’s going on and should try to work with the employer to correct any wages that fall below the minimum,” she said. “All of this needs to be done with the understanding that this has been a long-standing practice.”

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@gazettenet.com.

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