As drivers and pedestrians cross the busy 18th Street bridge above Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown, they are likely unaware of the men who live and sleep below — or that many of them are the same people who chop vegetables, clean floors and refill buffets at Asian restaurants in Illinois and across the Midwest.

On a late summer evening, the men crack jokes, drink beer and relax — some sprawled on bare mattresses, others lounging on dilapidated furniture amid an assortment of shopping carts, discarded bottles and cardboard.

Jose Luis Ruiz, a 39-year-old from Michoacán, Mexico, often spends the night here. Undocumented, he originally came to the U.S. six years ago and did construction work, but he was lured into restaurant work through a newspaper ad in a Chicago paper for dishwashers — to a job that included a place to live with wages as much as $2,000 a month.

Jose Luis Ruiz, a 39-year-old from Michoacan, Mexico, says he works at Asian restaurants all over the Midwest, putting in 12- or 13-hour days, making $2,000 a month. Each time he gets a job, he pays an employment agency $120. | Provided

Jose Luis Ruiz, a 39-year-old from Michoacan, Mexico, says he works at Asian restaurants all over the Midwest, putting in 12- or 13-hour days, making $2,000 a month. Each time he gets a job, he pays an employment agency $120. | Provided

But since he started working at eateries three years ago, he said he has shuffled between Asian restaurants all over the Midwest, putting in 12- or 13-hour days, six days a week, for pay that works out to a few dollars an hour. The men say they get virtually no breaks and are often treated poorly, put up in substandard housing.

“The work has not gone well for me,” Ruiz said in Spanish. “We work, but sometimes they treat us badly. They kick us out of the jobs, but we don’t have other options.”

It’s unknown how many undocumented workers were lured in a similar fashion. But at the center of it all is an under-the-radar network of employment agencies, including some based in Chinatown on the near South Side.

Madigan alleges exploitation

The agencies, the men say, are still active in connecting workers and restaurants, despite a 2015 federal lawsuit brought by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan against three businesses for allegedly exploiting Latino immigrant workers in several states.

The agencies listed in the suit include Xing Ying Employment Agency, Jiao’s Employment Agency and Chinatown Agencia de Empleo. Two Illinois restaurants — Hibachi Sushi Buffet in Cicero and Hibachi Grill Buffet in Elk Grove Village — that had used their services were also listed in the complaint.

The lawsuit led to consent decrees resulting in thousands of dollars in back wages paid to some of the workers; a hearing on another decree is set for this week in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

Many of the workers, the agencies acknowledge in court records, are undocumented.

“This lawsuit arises out of abusive and discriminatory treatment of Latino workers by a number of underground employment agencies operating out of Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood that place vulnerable, immigrant workers in exploitative restaurant jobs across the country,” Madigan’s complaint states.

Chinatown Agencia de Empleo, an employment agency which referred immigrant Latino workers to Asian restaurants throughout the Midwest, was located on W. Alexander St. in Chicago's Chinatown. The agency closed shortly after being named in a lawsuit filed by the Illinois Attorney General. | Belle Lin/ Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Chinatown Agencia de Empleo, an employment agency that referred immigrant Latino workers to Asian restaurants throughout the Midwest, closed shortly after being named in a lawsuit filed by the Illinois Attorney General. | Belle Lin/ Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

The agencies attract “desperately poor Latino workers” with no permanent residence who move frequently from job to job and city to city, Madigan’s complaint says.

The lawsuit claimed the agencies and their restaurant clients “collectively set the wages for each Latino worker referred as low as $3.50 an hour, well below the $8.25 minimum wage in Illinois.” The employees work 12-15 hours a day, six days a week with “no bona fide meal breaks.”

What’s more, the workers were often housed in overcrowded and “squalid conditions,” Madigan says. Elk Grove Village Hibachi Buffet, “crowded as many as fifteen employees into a three-bedroom apartment with just one bathroom, and no furniture aside from soiled mattresses, which employees had resorted to finding themselves from a nearby garbage dumpster.”

Hibachi Sushi Buffet, located in the western Chicago suburb of Cicero, Ill., was a defendant in Attorney General Lisa Madigan's 2015 lawsuit that alleged discriminatory labor practices. The restaurant, and an employment agency in the lawsuit were ordered to repay wages and penalties in a federal consent decree last year. | Alexandra Arriaga/Sun-Times

Hibachi Sushi Buffet in Cicero | Alexandra Arriaga/Sun-Times

Wen Bin Ren, a former head chef at one of the Illinois restaurant companies named in the suit, described to investigators how he hired workers from the employment agencies.

“The way the process worked is that I would call one of these agencies and tell them what Hibachi Grill was looking for in terms of an employee and how much Hibachi Grill would pay,” he said in a written statement included in the lawsuit. “My recollection is that China Employment Agency and Shun Ying [another name for the Xing Ying agency] could provide either Chinese or Mexican workers, depending upon what the restaurant was looking for.”

The complaint alleges that employment agencies charge employers between $120 and $220 for each worker, who are then required to repay the employment agency fee through their paychecks.

Some workers get back pay

In a consent decree reached as part of the lawsuit, Hibachi in Cicero was ordered to pay a total of $96,000 in back wages to seven employees and in penalties to the state. An attorney for the owner said the restaurant no longer uses the agencies in the lawsuit or any similar ones.

Hibachi in Elk Grove was ordered to pay a total of $100,000 in back wages to four employees, plus penalties to the state. An attorney for the owner declined to comment.

Jiao’s Employment Agency was also ordered to pay the state $16,500 in penalties. In a court document, the agency said the wages and other conditions were set by the restaurants. Chinatown Agencia de Empleo, which also said it did not determine worker pay in court filings, closed after the suit was filed.

Despite the decree, the workers said they are still using agencies to find work, and they say the working conditions at other restaurants haven’t gotten much better.

Ruiz, who said he has been referred to jobs by Xing Ying and other Chinatown agencies, recently quit a job at a restaurant in Waukegan because, he said, he was working as long as 12 hours a day for very little pay.

Another worker at the same restaurant, who did not want his name used, said he is paid in cash, meaning there is no written record of his wages or hours worked. While he said the managers are nice and the home they provide workers is decent, the pay is too low and there is no pay for overtime.

A Latino employee takes a break from mopping the floor at a Chinese restaurant in Waukegan, Ill. He says managers treat the employees well and offer them a decent place to stay, but do not pay workers overtime or the minimum wage.

A Latino employee takes a break from mopping the floor at a Chinese restaurant in Waukegan.

As the man took a break from mopping the floor on a late September afternoon, he said there are not many options for undocumented immigrants. “What can we do?” he asked in Spanish.

The owner of the restaurant, however, denied the workers were underpaid and said he doesn’t use agencies to find workers anymore. Instead, he pointed to the “now hiring” sign on the window as his recruitment method. He denied hiring Ruiz and said employees are paid $10 an hour.

Ruiz said he is now in Iowa working at another restaurant.

Camerino Velazquez, 64, has found jobs for 20 years through various employment agencies. Although some employers treat them well, Latino workers are often treated harshly or fired without warning, he said. He often sleeps under the 18th Street bridge, but health reasons have led him to make plans to return to his native Oaxaca soon.

“Yes, they take advantage of us,” he said in Spanish. “But none of us have papers.”

While the Waukegan buffet was not listed in the lawsuit, the complaint includes copies of checks to the agencies named in the suit from a variety of restaurants in the far suburbs and beyond, including Asian Buffet in Mount Vernon; Sakura Sushi Asian Cuisine in McHenry; 88 Yummy House in Streator; China Capital Super Buffet in Olney; and Amb Buffet in Machasney. There was also a referral slip given to an employee from an agency working at Woow Sushi in Orland Park.

When asked by a reporter about the suit, representatives from the restaurants said they no longer use the agencies — or refused to answer questions.

Shuttled from job to job

Xing Ying is still operating, connecting restaurants and workers.

Beto, a 27-year-old undocumented resident from Guadalajara, Mexico, said in an interview that he encountered poor conditions, long hours and low wages while working in restaurants he was connected to by employment agencies in Chicago, including Xing Ying. Beto asked that his last name not be used, out of fear of deportation and losing work with the restaurants.

Two Chinese-owned employment agency offices are located side-by-side in Richland Center Food Court, a basement mostly consisting of food stalls in Chicago's Chinatown on Aug. 13, 2018. On the left is the Xing Xing Employment Agency, and on the right is the Shun Yi Employment Agency. | Belle Lin/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Two Chinese-owned employment agency offices are located side-by-side in Richland Center Food Court in Chinatown. On the left is the Xing Xing Employment Agency, and on the right is the Shun Yi Employment Agency. | Belle Lin/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

In late August, Beto was seated outside a pair of nondescript and sparsely furnished employment agency offices in the basement of a Richland Center Chinatown Food Court at 2002 S. Wentworth. He recounted that he started getting jobs through similar agencies about two years ago. His first job was in Appleton, Wisconsin.

“Sometimes you don’t know where you are. Sometimes they’ll tell you, ‘You’re going to Indianapolis,’ and when you are in Indianapolis, some people go for you and take you to another place, like little towns,” he said.

A referral slip he showed the Sun-Times from Xing Ying, dated from June, shows that he was sent to a restaurant in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to work for a $2,100 monthly salary. He was charged $100 for transportation, along with a $100 fee, according to the slip.

A receipt from the Xing Ying employment agency that was given to Beto, an immigrant from Mexico, which he took to a new job at a restaurant in Wisconsin. Xing Ying provides each Latino worker with a “ticket” to bring to the restaurant. This receipt says Beto’s job is in Oshkosh, Wis., his monthly salary is $2,100, his bus fare is $100, and the fee he paid to obtain the job is $100. | Provided

A receipt from the Xing Ying employment agency that was given to Beto, an immigrant from Mexico, which he took to a new job at a restaurant in Wisconsin. Xing Ying provides each Latino worker with a “ticket” to bring to the restaurant. This receipt says Beto’s job is in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, his monthly salary is $2,100, his bus fare is $100, and the fee he paid to obtain the job is $100. | Provided

Beto said most of his co-workers were Mexican, and the rest were Chinese. The Mexicans, he said, are considered “more cheap” by employers.

He said the jobs can be fleeting. One time, an employer sent him back to the agency because she did not like his tattoos.

“If the guys [restaurant owners] don’t like you, they send you back. They don’t care if you don’t have any money,” Beto said.

The jobs are stressful, Madigan’s suit says.

“Managers and supervisors of Restaurant Defendants harass and degrade Latino employees,” the complaint says. “For example, managers and supervisors at Cicero Hibachi Buffet frequently yell at Latino employees and call them names like ‘retarded’ or ‘stupid.’ In addition, other non-Latino employees at this buffet have teased that they ‘hoped’ some Latino employees ‘would die.’ Latino employees work in very stressful and hurried working conditions … and they are constantly pressured by managers to work faster.”

That could lead to injuries, such as cuts to hands, but the employees were forced “to work through their on-the-job injuries and fire them if they are unable to do so,” the suit said.

Beto described living in the winter in cold apartments or a wet basement provided by his employers. He said work hours were long with sometimes just white rice to eat.

“Sometimes, the guys cooking for you don’t want to spend too much money on you,” he said.

Fired, back on the street

Beto said if a worker spoke out, he or she could be threatened with calls to police and deportation. Indeed, when owners of the Xing Ying agency learned he had spoken to reporters for this story, Beto said, he was let go from the restaurant he was working at and his belongings — which he had kept at the agency for safekeeping — were placed on a bench outside the locked front door of the agency. He said he was also not allowed to stay at another employment agency where he had hoped to spend the night.

The 2015 lawsuit brought by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan alleges that employment agencies placed discriminatory advertisements in the same Chinese-language newspaper, World Journal. An example of these advertisements included in the lawsuit tout the availability of “Mexican” workers. to employers seeking such workers, that one agency is a “base camp of Mexican workers.” The Xing Ying Agency promises to “provide the best Mexican workers,” and Chinatown Agencia de Empleo offers a “large number of Mexican workers” to potential employers. Employment agencies still advertise workers for Asian restaurants in World Journal, but no longer specify the workers are Mexicans. | U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois

The 2015 lawsuit brought by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan alleges that employment agencies placed discriminatory advertisements in the same Chinese-language newspaper, World Journal. An example of these advertisements included in the lawsuit tout the availability of “Mexican” workers to employers seeking such workers, that one agency is a “base camp of Mexican workers.” The Xing Ying Agency promises to “provide the best Mexican workers,” and Chinatown Agencia de Empleo offers a “large number of Mexican workers” to potential employers.  | U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois

Chilly reception at employment agency

Zhu Ying Zhang (known as “Cindy” to workers) and Jun Jin Cheung own and operate Xing Ying, which at the time of the lawsuit had a Chicago business license but was not a licensed employment agency by the Illinois Department of Labor, according to court documents.

During a recent visit to the offices at 2228 S. Archer, several mattresses were stacked along a wall inside, and a row of rooms extended down a hallway. A half-dozen men were lounging around the mattresses, and several emerged from the rooms down the hallway.

When asked about the charges in the lawsuit, Zhang said she did not understand the question and abruptly disappeared down the hallway.

Cheung, who is described in court documents as enforcing agency rules through threats and violence, refused to answer questions. According to the lawsuit, Xing Ying charged workers $10 a night to sleep at the agency but were told to “stay away from the windows.”

‘The best Mexicans’

In March, Madigan won partial summary judgment against Xing Ying that found it placed discriminatory ads in the Chinese-language World Journal that advertised it could “provide the best Mexicans” who are “honest and sincere.” In August, the government reached a consent decree with Xing Ying, but the details have not been formalized, according to court records. There is a hearing in the case before District Court Judge John Z. Lee Wednesday.

Carolyn Morales, an organizer at Arise Chicago Worker Center, which educates immigrant and U.S.-born workers on their rights in the workplace, said “worker exploitation is rampant” in the restaurant industry in eateries in small towns across the Midwest and beyond.

But Beto said employees rarely benefit from the arrangement.

“Almost nobody gains,” he said. “We don’t gain anything.”

Alexandra Arriaga is a digital content producer for the Chicago Sun-Times. Belle Lin is a fellow at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism