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Chinese Restaurant Workers Dish on Employers

A restaurant worker, member of the Chinese Progressive Association, describes conditions he faced
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A restaurant worker, member of the Chinese Progressive Association, describes conditions he faced
Report finds back pay, minimum-wage violations and health problems all too common

Chinatown's restaurants are a popular tourist attraction, but for the workers who cook and serve the meals, the conditions are not so attractive, according to a new survey.

The report, titled "Check, Please!," by the immigrant-rights group Chinese Progressive Association, claims that Chinatown restaurant workers are underpaid and overworked. It found that 50 percent or more of workers earn below minimum wage, have experienced burn injury on the job or do not have health insurance from their employers.

Eighty percent of workers surveyed reported unpaid overtime, 30 percent reported their wages being withheld and 15 percent reported their pay being delayed.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health, UC Berkeley and UCSF aided in the research, which included interviews with 433 workers and surveys of 106 restaurants in Chinatown. The report calls for stronger enforcement of labor laws, such as minimum wage and sick-leave policies, and investment in Chinatown's economic development.

A former employee of Great Oriental Restaurant, who said her last name is Wu but would not give her first name, said the restaurant withheld wages from her for three months. Wu worked 60 hours a week for $1,300 a month, which averaged out to less than $5.50 an hour. Minimum wage in California is $8 an hour.

"It's been difficult to pay the rent and to get food," Wu said. "It's hard to survive."

Wu is currently unemployed, having quit her job in June. She earned a portion of her wages back from her former employer with a wage claim filed through the association. The association began filing wage claims on behalf of garment industry and restaurant workers in 2001 and has reclaimed $3 million in wages.

In addition to low pay, workers face job-related health problems. About 60 percent of workers surveyed reported bodily pain and half reported physical exhaustion. Compounding these health problems, only 3 percent of workers have employer-provided health benefits and more than 50 percent pay out-of-pocket for health care.

The Golden Gate Restaurant Association, whose members include some Chinatown restaurants, says the association works to educate its members but is not a policing body. "We take it very seriously that all of our members are aware and educated on a constant basis about laws in San Francisco," said board president Laurie Thomas.

Pam Tau Lee, coordinator of public programs at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, says the problems workers face in Chinatown effect the entire city by forcing workers to rely on public assistance for health care and food and depriving the city of tax revenue when employers withhold wages.

"This is not appropriate," Lee said. "This needs to be changed."

She added that the social issues caused by labor violations outweigh the economic ramifications by far. She says exhausted workers are disengaged from their communities, struggling to participate in their children's schooling and often neglecting to vote.

"They just don't have the energy," she said.

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