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Jury awards more than $1.3M in back wages and damages
to 101 former employees at defunct Bellingham businesses
SEATTLE — Although a Bellingham restaurant and a spa have closed, 101 workers once employed by the businesses will receive more than $1.3 million in back wages and damages, thanks to a Washington State jury. The decision is the result of a U.S. Department of Labor investigation that revealed numerous violations of federal labor law.
A unanimous verdict found that the workers were systematically denied minimum wage and overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act by business owners Huang "Jackie" Jie and Zhao "Jenny" Zeng Hong. The lawsuit was filed in 2013 against the two owners and their companies, Pacific Coast Foods, Inc., doing business as J&J Mongolian Grill, and J&J Comfort Zone, Inc., doing business as Spa Therapy. The jury also found that the defendants interfered with and retaliated against workers, most of whom spoke little to no English, who cooperated in the Labor Department's investigation.
"No one who works hard and plays by the rules should be cheated out of the wages to which they are legally entitled," said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez. "In this case, the business owners took advantage of their workers and continued to do so even after being informed by investigators that they were operating in violation of federal labor law. That's unconscionable. We will hold accountable those businesses that break the law, and just like in this case, ensure that justice prevails for workers."
The department's Wage and Hour Division found that employees of the J&J Mongolian Grill and Spa Therapy put in on average more than 70 hours during a six to seven day workweek. A number of the workers were paid less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, and none of them received overtime pay for hours worked beyond 40 in a workweek. Both businesses were located in Bellingham's Bellis Fair Mall.
"Dozens of brave men and women will now get the long overdue back wages they rightfully earned following years of abuse, trickery and retaliation," said Janet Herold, the department's regional solicitor in San Francisco. "This verdict is a warning to others: We will find you and the courts will back us when employers try to shortchange their workers to maximize profits."
The department brought the case to court to stop the business owners, who have since divorced, from continuing to break the law and to recover wages owed to 101 cooks, kitchen helpers, cashiers and masseurs. The jury awarded the back wages and also awarded compensatory damages to four employees who had suffered retaliation, including threats, reduction of hours and, finally, termination of employment because they refused to be silenced about the defendants' labor law violations.
The FLSA requires that covered, nonexempt employees be paid at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour as well as time and one-half their regular rates for every hour they work beyond 40 per week. The FLSA also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees and requires employers to maintain accurate records.
These proceedings were held in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. The department was represented by its regional Office of the Solicitor in Seattle. For more information about the FLSA, call the Wage and Hour Division's toll-free helpline at 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243) or its Seattle office at 206-398-8039. Information also is available at http://www.dol.gov/whd/.