AALDEF Claims Victory in Three Cases On Immigrant Wages, Working Conditions

Tuesday, Mar 20, 2012

nail.JPGBloomberg BNA -- The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund during the month of February reached three settlement agreements in cases involving the pay and working conditions of low-wage immigrant workers in New York and New Jersey, AALDEF announced March 1.

AALDEF Feb. 28 reached a private, out-of-court settlement with a New York City nail salon on behalf of Pema Sherpa, a former employee and immigrant from Nepal.

According to AALDEF, the salon denied its Nepali and Korean employees sufficient time to eat during the day, forcing them to eat in the salon's waxing room when they were afforded meal times. Sherpa also alleged that the salon's owner made ethnically disparaging remarks to her and denied her overtime pay for working 10 and one-half-hour days.

Sherpa claimed that when she confronted the owner, the owner shoved her and sprayed an aerosol can at her head. The next day, Sherpa was fired.

One of Few to Come Forward. ''Once Ms. Sherpa became aware of her rights, she was determined to prevent the nail salon owner from abusing other workers,'' AALDEF attorney Shirley Lin said in a statement. ''She bravely chose to hold the owner to account.''

Because of a confidentiality agreement, AALDEF did not reveal the name of the nail salon or the settlement terms, although Lin told Bloomberg BNA March 7 that Sherpa was awarded several thousand dollars.

Sherpa was ''one of the first workers from that community who have come forward,'' Lin said. She was aided by her membership in Adhikaar, a New York nonprofit organization promoting human rights and social justice in Nepali-speaking communities Lin said the Nepali community in New York is smaller than other immigrant communities, and access to information about their rights in their native tongue ''is very limited.'' She suggested that this language barrier is the main reason why more Nepali immigrants-- many of whom work in nail salons and as domestic workers, housekeepers, and nannies--fail to speak out about their working conditions.

Housekeeper Not Paid Overtime. Another settlement agreement executed by AALDEF awarded $7,000 to a Chinese immigrant housekeeper--who used the pseudonym ''Ms. Lee''--who worked for a Days Inn franchise in Parsippany, N.J. She claimed that she was made to work up to 14 hours a day for 12 days at a time without being paid any overtime compensation.

She quit after her protests went ignored, finding after six months that her working conditions were too intolerable to continue.

''What we've seen is that underpayment of overtime goes virtually hand-in-hand with an employer's failure to accurately keep records of a worker's schedule, which the law requires without exception,'' Lin said in the AALDEF statement.

''AALDEF is willing to speak with the workers who step forward first, and any additional workers who are on the fence about coming forward . . . often wait to see what happens with the first worker's case,'' Lin told Bloomberg BNA. She said in cases where employers fail to keep accurate records of employees' work schedules it is likely that other workers are facing a similar situation. Lin added that AALDEF expects that its publication of successful legal cases will inspire other immigrant workers to come forward and assert their rights.

The Days Inn franchise owner was not represented by an attorney.

Lawsuit Filed Against Restaurant. Finally, AALDEF announced a Feb. 9 settlement agreement in a federal lawsuit brought on behalf of three former kitchen workers for You Chun Restaurant in Palisades Park, N.J. (Cui v. You Chun Palisades Corp., D.N.J., No. 2:11-cv-05243, settlement announced 2/9/12).

According to AALDEF, Ms. Cui and Ms. Jiang, who are Chinese immigrants, and Mr. Tamay, a Latino immigrant, worked 72- to 80-hour workweeks, six days a week, with the owner allegedly owing hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages, minimum wage, overtime, and liquidated damages under federal and state law.

Lin said the settlement, also confidential, was reached to the mutual satisfaction of both parties. Attorney Peter Kim of Palisades Park, N.J., who represented the restaurant, could not be reached for comment. Asian immigrants depend heavily on community groups and advocacy organizations that speak their languages to inform them of their employment rights and vindicate them through the legal system, Lin said. AALDEF and other organizations largely use ''on the street outreach'' such as hanging flyers in immigrant neighborhoods, she said.

Asian immigrants tend to be concentrated in low-wage industries, Lin said, adding that AALDEF advocates for government agencies such as the Labor Department to take a more active role in reaching out to these communities.

For example, she said, AALDEF has attempted to get the DOL office in northern New Jersey to advertise that it has two investigators who speak both English and Korean. That would be ''a tremendous step in the right direction'' because business owners often try to delay investigations on account of the investigator speaking only English, Lin said.

Reproduced with permission from Workplace Immigration Report, 6 WIR 177 (March 19, 2012). Copyright 2012 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (800-372-1033) <http://www.bna.com>

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