In recent years, there has been well deserved criticism of powerful people and institutions who abuse and discriminate against immigrants, especially the undocumented.
The dirty secret, in the shadows, is that some immigrants and people of color are abusing their own.
Last week, the U.S. Labor Department nailed Tank Noodle, a popular spot for Vietnamese food on Chicago’s North Side, for wage theft. The agency announced Tank Noodle Inc. has agreed to pay nearly $700,000 in back wages to 60 employees.
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A Labor Department investigation “found the employer owed some workers more than $10,000 each in back wages and identified numerous violations” of a federal law governing minimum wage and overtime requirements, according to a March 3 press release from the agency.
The restaurant illegally “shorted servers” by pooling the tips, then dividing them evenly among all staff, including management. It also “violated overtime requirements when it paid some workers flat amounts per day, regardless of the number of hours that they worked.”
Last December, Tank Noodle Inc. agreed to pay the back wages, according to the Labor Department. The restaurant did not respond to a request for comment.
Food is love, and ethnic restaurants are nestled in the heart of this proud city of immigrants.
Before the pandemic, I loved Tank Noodle.
The lines were usually out the door of the busy spot at the corner of Broadway and Argyle in the area known as “little Saigon.”
I was a regular. I coveted the luscious shrimp sate and steaming bowls of pho delivered by the always hustling and ever-friendly Vietnamese servers.
Tank Noodle seemed to be a successful, family-run business. An immigrant success story.
But that achievement may have been built on the backs of exploited immigrant workers.
There are more Tanks out there. For years, my husband and I lunched every Saturday at our sushi hangout in Lakeview.
We got to know the charming Japanese server who brought tender sashimi and spicy dragon rolls. Her English was spotty, but her service was perfect. She would share her story of coming to America and show off photos of her baby. We suspected she might be undocumented but never asked.
We tipped generously.
Then one afternoon as we were leaving the restaurant, she glanced over her shoulder and whispered, “I just want you to know, that I don’t get to keep the tips.”
We never returned.
The Tank Noodle investigation “recovered a considerable amount of back wages for 60 employees in an industry whose essential workers are often among the lowest paid in our society,” said Thomas Gauza, the department’s wage and hour division district director in Chicago, in a statement.
Employers steal billions of dollars from American workers’ paychecks every year, according to a 2017 study by the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit think tank.
Researchers looked at 10 states, including Illinois, and found “2.4 million workers lose $8 billion annually from being paid at an effective hourly rate lower than the states’ minimum wage,” the institute reported. “These findings suggest that employers across the country are pocketing over $15 billion each year that is owed to their employees.”
“On average, workers suffering minimum wage violations are cheated out of $64 a week — $3,300 annually for year-round workers,” the study noted. They lose almost a quarter of their earnings, receiving, on average, $10,500 annually.
Immigrant workers were among those likely to be victimized.
It’s bad enough when venal politicians and monied interests demonize and abuse immigrants.
When immigrants abuse their own, it’s evil.
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