Former South Portland restaurant workers settle labor lawsuit

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Eight former employees of the Super Great Wall Buffet have reached a settlement in lawsuit filed last year claiming labor violations and intimidation by the restaurant’s owners.

While the details of the settlement are confidential, documents filed in U.S. District Court in Portland indicate the employees will each receive regular and overtime wages they are owed.

However, the settlement suggests that the workers accepted a compromise on several “disputed claims,” while other claims may have been negated by statutes of limitations.

Jeffrey Young, the Topsham-based attorney representing the former workers, would not discuss specifics of the settlement.

“I can tell you that there are all too many employers in Maine violating the wage and hours laws,” Young said. “But with respect to that case, it’s resolved.”

The lawsuit was announced with great fanfare in September 2009, when the former workers, joined by local and national workers rights groups, staged a protest calling outside the 198 Maine Mall Road Chinese restaurant. They called for a boycott of the business,which was unexpectedly closed that day.

At that rally, Young told reporters he estimated the workers were owed nearly $500,000 in unpaid regular and overtime wages.

The workers also accused their former bosses of not allowing them to take breaks, retaliating against workers who spoke out by firing them and making wage payment “kickbacks.”

According to court documents, the workers, who are mostly from New York City, claimed they were promised food and lodging to work in South Portland. While conceding 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 from 2003 to 2009, claimed to have been forced to pay between $210 and $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 alleged kickbacks and questioned the legality of the practice, the workers claimed to have been threatened. They eventually paid their bosses, according to court documents.

The former workers, whose native language is Mandarin Chinese, also accused their bosses of creating – and forcing employees to sign – fake record books written in English to make it look like they were complying with state laws.

Court documents indicate the two sides met with attorney Mark Irvings on May 20 in a day-long mediation session that stretched into the evening.

U.S. District Court Judge George Z. Singal signed off on the settlement, the details of which are sealed.

“(The settlement) is a fair and reasonable compromise of disputed claims and the agreements are not a mere waiver of statutory rights resulting from an employer’s over-reacting behavior,” Singal said in court documents.

The lawsuit was dismissed on Sept. 15 “with prejudice,” a harsh legal remedy that prevents a plaintiff from filing the same lawsuit against the defendant in the future.

Jonathan Shipiro, a Portland-based attorney for the defendants, confirmed the settlement. But he wouldn’t comment without first contacting his clients, Ren Qi Chen and Siow Wooi Chang, and Young.

Young’s clients in the lawsuit are Yan Q. Chen, Dan G. Lin, Wei H. Wang, Guo L. Li, Xiao Y. Zheng, He X. Liu, Cheng D. Wang and Shadan He.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

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Former employees protest at the Super Great Wall Buffet in South Portland in September 2009.

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