Fed up with just tips

Immigrant workers are newly emboldened to fight bosses who ignore labor laws. Companies fight back, saying greedy lawyers are the problem.

Published May 30, 2007


Danger and exhaustion came with the job in the decade Chen Tianyun spent as a restaurant delivery man in Manhattan.

Traffic threatened to squash his scooter like a dumpling. He survived an armed robbery. Most weeks, he toiled 70 hours so he could send money to his family in China.

And for his effort, he said, he was paid a salary of $550 per month - about $1.81 per hour.

Live on your tips, his bosses told him.

Stories like Chen's are a dime a dozen in New York City, where immigrants make up nearly half the work force and employers who ignore labor laws have long been able to count on silence from laborers thankful for a job.

But lately, many of those arrangements have been threatened by a simmering service industry rebellion.

In recent years, low-paid workers around the country have filed a growing number of lawsuits seeking thousands of dollars in back wages from bosses they say failed to pay the minimum wage or overtime.

The complaints cover a wide range of industries and workers, from landscapers and warehouse laborers to shop clerks and construction contractors, but most share a common trait: They involve immigrants who have become bolder about going to court to demand their proper pay, regardless of their legal status.

Some of the business owners being sued insist they treated workers well, and are themselves being taken advantage of by savvy activists and lawyers.

In New York, many of those complaints have come from workers who say that, for years, they worked mostly for tips.

Chen and fellow delivery workers at the Saigon Grill, a small chain of Vietnamese cafes, sued seeking back pay in March. More than a dozen New York restaurants have seen similar claims in the past few months.

Grocery baggers at supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods have sued and filed complaints with state labor officials over the past year, claiming their only pay was handfuls of coins offered by customers that sometimes added up to as little as $250 a week.

In the South, the Southern Poverty Law Center has sued on behalf of Mexican and Guatemalan forestry workers - in the United States legally on guest worker visas - who claim to have been denied overtime and effectively paid less than minimum wage.

Lawyer Michael S. Weisberg, who represents the Saigon Grill, said every worker at the company was paid at least minimum wage, which in New York is now $4.60 per hour for tipped food-service workers.

"They make a fortune!" Weisberg said of the delivery men, all of whom were fired after filing their lawsuit, and now picket the restaurant several times a week.

He accused the workers, many of whom are Chinese nationals in the United States illegally, of lying about how many hours they worked, and of unfairly turning on a boss who offered jobs without asking too many questions about a worker's immigration status.

"Let them justify one salary that is short!" Weisberg said.