This past February marked three legal victories for AALDEF’s Economic Justice Project on behalf of immigrant worker clients who had been denied wages, and endured abusive working conditions, demonstrating that legal recourse is possible even in the midst of the current recession.
Pema Sherpa, a Nepali immigrant nail salon worker, became acquainted with AALDEF through her membership in Adhikaar, a Woodside-based human rights group, where she is actively involved in the Nail Salon Campaign. Last fall, Sherpa consulted AALDEF regarding the derogatory remarks and retaliation she faced in a Manhattan nail salon. There, the Nepali and Korean immigrant employees were denied sufficient time to eat, and when they did, were forced to eat in the salon’s waxing room. The salon owner would make ethnically disparaging remarks toward Sherpa. Even though she was working 10 ½ hours a day, Sherpa received no overtime, and she and her co-workers were obligated to “buy” basic salon tools from the employer at grossly inflated prices.
When Sherpa stood up to the owner one day and objected to the insults and work conditions, the owner responded with violence, shoving her and spraying an aerosol at her head while lashing out. Sherpa feared for her safety. The next day, the owner retaliated again, firing her.
AALDEF advised Sherpa that she was entitled to legal recourse. She discovered that she had been denied overtime pay, and that the tools she purchased were in fact illegal salary deductions. “Once Ms. Sherpa became aware of her rights, she was determined to prevent the nail salon owner from abusing other workers,” said AALDEF Staff Attorney Shirley Lin. “She bravely chose to hold the owner to account.”
AALDEF confronted the salon owner last December on Sherpa’s behalf, threatening legal action through a demand letter. On February 28, the parties executed a settlement agreement.
To her friends and colleagues who face similar challenges, Sherpa said, “Sisters at nail salons, if you are working and are mistreated, you can take action. I did. I am still working at a nail salon, and I now give advice to other sisters.”
Earlier in February, AALDEF also negotiated a $7,000 settlement for a Chinese immigrant hotel housekeeper from a Days Inn Hotel franchise in Parsippany, New Jersey. For six months, “Ms. Lee” (not her real name) was required to work up to 14 hours a day, 12 days at a time cleaning rooms, but did not receive proper overtime pay. Her protests against the unlawful treatment went ignored. After the intolerably long hours forced her to quit, “Ms. Lee” sought legal advice from AALDEF.
According to Lin, low-wage immigrant workers like “Ms. Lee” are denied their rightful overtime wages when employers refuse to keep an accurate count of the hours they require their staff to work. “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,” said Lin.
In addition, on February 9th, three former kitchen workers of You Chun Restaurant, a Palisades Park, New Jersey noodle restaurant, reached an agreement with the restaurant’s owner to settle the lawsuit AALDEF brought on their behalf. Ms. Cui and Ms. Jiang, both ethnic Korean-Chinese immigrants, and Mr. Tamay, a Latino immigrant, had collectively worked at the restaurant for nearly 15 years, putting in at least 72- to 80-hour weeks, six days a week. They alleged that the restaurant and its owner owed them hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages, minimum wages, overtime, and liquidated damages. AALDEF commenced the action, Cui v. You Chun Palisades Corporation, last September in New Jersey federal court.
“Although they faced considerable pressures, our clients never gave up,” said Lin. “This victory has vindicated the considerable time and effort they devoted to advancing their case to court, and to supporting one another since their first day at the restaurant. This success is a direct result of their incredible strength and resolve. We are confident their story will inspire other workers who stand up for their rights.”
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