By Prem Calvin Prashad
Kum Gang San, a Korean restaurant with locations in Flushing and Manhattan’s Koreatown, has egregiously violated employment law for several years, a lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal court by the Asian American Legal Defense Fund and LatinoJustice PRLDEF alleges.
A mainstay of the Korean-American community, Kum Gang San bills itself as the “No. 1 Korean restaurant in New York City” and caters weddings, parties and other important events, in addition to having a large banquet space at its Flushing site, at 138-28 Northern Blvd. The restaurant is open 24 hours a day.
The defendants in the case include Kum Gang San’s owner, Ji-Sung Yoo and his two younger brothers, as well as two managers with the power to fire employees at the Flushing restaurant. Yoo has been fined twice by the Department of Labor: in 2005 $140,000 for improper payroll records and more recently almost $2 million for allegedly skimming wages from employees, which is currently being appealed.
“They actually understood the law so well, [that] after these Department of Labor investigations they had workers create fraudulent timecards that seemingly complied with the law,” said Bethany Li, staff attorney at AALDEF.
In the lawsuit, the 14 plaintiffs, including 10 Korean wait staff and three Latino bussers, claim to have worked 12- to 18-hour days when catering events or taking on additional responsibilities, including personal tasks for the owner and falsifying time cards.
Yoo also held Sunday morning church services in the banquet hall of the restaurant, allegedly punishing employees who did not participate, according to the complaint. The plaintiffs are seeking unpaid minimum and overtime wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act and state law as well as attorney fees.
The current complaint alleges that busser and waitress tips are also split with managers, selected kitchen staff and the restaurant, therefore violating provisions for tipped minimum wage.
According to federal law, employees may be paid $4.25 an hour if they are also compensated with tips, but those tips cannot be shared by the establishment, management or the food preparation staff, including chefs.
Defendant Myungja Lee, VIP and banquet manager of the Flushing Kum Gang San, is named in the suit as taking a share of employee tips. The suit also alleges that 8 percent of employee tips made by credit card are taken by the establishment as a “service fee.”
The suit claims that Kum Gang San staff are owed the full minimum wage, due to a failure by the restaurant to meet the provisions to claim a “tip credit.” Combined with the forced overtime, the plaintiffs occasionally made under the tipped minimum wage, the complaint alleges.
Though not pursued by the plaintiffs, the complaint includes allegations of forcing employees to “volunteer” at a farm in New Jersey, picking cabbage and chili peppers used in the restaurant’s kimchi. One employee testified that those who refused to volunteer had their hours cut or were asked not to come into work for an extended period of time.
On hearing of a possible legal action, the owners also allegedly threatened to report workers to immigration authorities, according to the complaint.
“A lot of Koreans that are looking for a job in the restaurant industry know Kum Gang San,” Li notes.
In the past decade, a series of employment lawsuits were brought by AALDEF and other organizations against Chinese restaurants, but little legal action has been taken against Korean restaurants prior to this lawsuit.
“Kum Gang San is known in the Korean community to exploit their workers,” Li noted, underlining the relative impunity with which the restaurant had been able to allegedly violate the law for several years.
The case went to trial, presided over by Magristrate Judge Michael H. Dolinger, and has concluded, with a decision expected this summer.
On the stand, Yoo claimed he has treated workers “like family.”
According to Li, when word of the possibility of a lawsuit reached the owners, they called a meeting with all employees, informing them of the consequences of proceeding with the lawsuit.
Concerns over being blacklisted from employment in other Korean restaurants and establishments discourage many employees from pursing action against their bosses, for fear that they be labeled “troublemakers.” Much like generations of immigrants before them, recent immigrants with little to no English skills initially rely on employment within ethnic communities for their survival.
AALDEF currently holds workshops to help educate workers on their rights, including their right to a minimum wage, breaks and overtime. Regarding efforts by Labor, Li stressed the importance of having investigators who are able to communicate with workers.