SOUTH PORTLAND — After filing a lawsuit in federal court, nine former employees of the Super Great Wall Buffet staged a protest Tuesday afternoon in front of their former workplace in the Mallside shopping center on Maine Mall Road.
The former employees were joined by members of several local and regional labor groups, including the Southern Maine Labor Council and New York-based Justice Will Be Served, to demand a criminal investigation into working conditions at the restaurant, which some described as a sweatshop steeped in intimidation.
The former employees also called on customers to boycott the restaurant, which is owned and operated by Ren Qi Chen, Siow Wooi Chang and Xue Wen Chen.
On Tuesday, more than a dozen people paraded in front of the restaurant, which was unexpectedly closed, chanting slogans and carrying signs written in English and Chinese. The former employees, speaking through an interpreter, described the allegations contained in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on Aug. 27.
According to court documents, the former employees, most of whom now live in New York, accuse the restaurant owners of not paying them an hourly wage and demanding kickbacks to keep their jobs. The workers are seeking unpaid regular and overtime wages, among other damages.
Jeffrey Young is a Topsham-based attorney representing the workers.
“We live here in a beautiful state,” Young said Tuesday. “What happened to these workers, who were recruited from New York, is not the way life should be.”
He estimated the nine former employees are owed about $500,000 in back wages over the last six years.
“Just this group of nine workers, and there were many others, have been underpaid by a half a million dollars,” Young said. “They deserve to be treated fairly. We’re asking they be treated with respect and dignity and that the Super Great Wall Buffet make amends. Pay the workers the just wages they are due.”
According to court documents, the workers were recruited by hiring agencies in New York City’s Chinatown. The owners allegedly promised to provide the workers with food and lodging. Although the workers concede they were told they wouldn’t earn hourly wages, they claim the owners said the workers would get about $2,800 a month in tips.
Instead, workers, who were employed for various periods between 2003 and 2009, were allegedly forced to pay between $210 to $250 every two weeks to keep their jobs, where they worked more than 70 hours a week. And in 2007, when about a dozen restaurant employees refused to pay the kickback and questioned the legality of the practice, the workers were threatened. They eventually paid their bosses, according to court documents.
“When they dared to challenge these conditions, the owners retaliated, first by not seating people in their areas, which means they got no tip income,” Young said. “So they were, in essence working for free, because they weren’t getting any wages. Then, they further retaliated by terminating the workers.”
Dan Lin, the most vocal employee, said he was punished by not receiving customers. The owners allegedly fired Lin, who threatened to file a lawsuit over the termination, before they rehired him. Lin and other employees also allege the owners claimed to know organized crime members in New York, who would retaliate against people who complained or tried to tell their coworkers about their rights.
“Some of (the workers) were definitely scared,” Young said. “They felt the employers had reaches back to mainland China and there were definitely, according to the workers, implicit threats made against their families.”
Meanwhile, eight of the nine workers allegedly lived in squalid conditions in the basements of two houses on Capisic and Dennett streets in Portland, where they were picked up at 10 a.m., shuttled to work in a van and returned home at 10 p.m. Almost a dozen Chinese-speaking employees allegedly lived four to six people per 60-square-foot room in a Dennett Street basement.
“At Dennett Street, there were no windows in the basement, no real stove, a single electrical outlet for a rice cooker and the basement flooded when it rained, leaving mold,” the complaint said.
Although they are seeking damages through a civil lawsuit, the former employees want the attorney general to conduct a criminal investigation into the restaurant’s business practices. The former workers allege the owners kept fake records to make it look like their were complying with Maine labor laws, which requires servers be paid at least 50 percent of minimum wage.
“The books contained things written in English, which the Chinese immigrants did not understand, but were required to sign,” the complaint said. “The paychecks, which the defendants received on a biweekly basis, underestimated the number of hours which they had worked during that period and provided a phantom pay rate.”
Not only were the workers not paid wages or overtime, but they were not allowed to take breaks, even though they are entitled to a 30-minute break for every six consecutive hours worked.
The restaurant was closed during Tuesday’s protest. A reporter, who returned on Wednesday when the restaurant was open, asked the hostess if the owners were available. She said she didn’t know and consulted with a man and woman behind the cashier’s desk. Another employee said the owners did not come into work and did not call. She said they could not be reached by phone.
Among those protesting Tuesday afternoon was Douglas Gimbel, a Boothbay Harbor artist who grew up in West Falmouth. Gimbel said he used to be a regular at the restaurant.
“I will never spend another dime here,” Gimbel said, adding that if false work records were kept, the owners would not only be cheating the workers, but the community as a whole by not paying taxes. “I find it reprehensible. It makes you wonder what else has happened.”