'Apprenticeship' to Chef Meant Only Long Hours and Sub-Minimum Wages, Suit Says

Thursday, Apr 26, 2012

New York Times -- Here's a variant on the depressingly common phenomenon of restaurants underpaying their low-wage workers: a former employee of the Lower East Side gastropub Spitzer's Corner has charged in a suit that he was hired into a nonexistent "apprenticeship" and required to work upwards of 90 hours a week for as little as $2.91 an hour.

The worker, Edward Kim, said in a statement that the restaurant's chef, Sung Park, told him would be trained as a skilled chef but instead, the suit charges, required him to perform an "ever-expanding list of duties" that included butchering, receiving heavy shipments and running personal errands for Mr. Park.

The suit, filed on behalf of Mr. Kim by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that Mr. Kim was paid $350 to $450 a week and worked a minimum of 80 hours a week. His pay often worked out to below $3 an hour and was rarely much more than $5, the suit said.

The minimum wage in New York is $7.25 an hour, with time-and-a-half ($10.88 an hour) required for hours in excess of 40 per week.

Shirley Lin, a lawyer for the legal defense fund, said that Mr. Kim, now 23, met Mr. Park through a friend and told him he was thinking of going to culinary school. Mr. Park said that Mr. Kim should apprentice himself at the restaurant instead and promised, "I'll teach you how to cook," Ms. Lin said - meaning, she said, "how to construct a dish, not do endless repetitive menial tasks."

Mr. Kim was given varying statements as to what he would be paid and hesitated to object because he was just starting out in the restaurant world, Ms. Lin said. Mr. Kim, who worked at the restaurant from March 2010 to January 2011, was also routinely ordered to punch in on the time clock many hours after he had actually started work and punch out many hours before he left, the suit says.

Although Mr. Kim said he was told his job was an apprenticeship, the restaurant did not register an apprenticeship program with the state of federal labor departments, as would have been required, the suit says. In any case, state law requires that apprentices be paid at least minimum wage, the suit says. Mr. Kim seeks back pay and damages of more than $63,000.

A man who answered the phone at the restaurant Thursday afternoon said, "We have no comment at this time" when asked about the suit.

By Andy Newman

Read at the New York Times >