March 10, 2010

Group sues Great Wall restaurant for wages

DENNIS HOEY

— By

Staff Writer

The Super Great Wall Buffet restaurant in South Portland is being sued by a group of former workers who claim they were underpaid, forced to work long hours and housed in ''squalid'' conditions by their employers.

The nine ex-employees, all Chinese immigrants, say they were recruited to work at the restaurant near the Maine Mall by employment agencies in New York City over a period of 5½ years.

Their Topsham-based attorney, Jeffrey Neil Young, claims that the workers are owed at least a half-million dollars in back wages, and that the restaurant's owners could be responsible for more than $2.5 million in state penalties for failing to give the workers 30-minute breaks for every six hours worked.

He said a typical shift at the restaurant was as long as 13 hours, employees worked six days a weeks, they were paid less than minimum wage and they were not paid overtime wages.

''This is a case of discrimination. These workers were being exploited because of their limited ability to speak and read English,'' Young said in a telephone interview.

Young filed the lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Portland, naming as defendants Ren Qi Chen, Siow Wooi Chang and their son, Xue Wen Chen.

Chen is the chief executive officer of the business while Chang oversees day-to-day operations. They did not return messages left Monday at the restaurant and their home in Falmouth.

The workers plan a news conference at 1 p.m. today outside the restaurant, at 198 Maine Mall Road. All of them, except one, now live in New York City.

They arrived in Portland late Monday but were unwilling to be interviewed before the news conference, said Jei Fong, an interpreter.

The lawsuit says the workers were employed at Super Great Wall Buffet from June 2003 until as late as January of this year. It says the workers were hired to cook, refill the buffet and wait on tables.

Super Great Wall Buffet serves an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet for a set price, along with American foods such as ham, chicken, mashed potatoes and a salad bar.

Young claims that his clients spoke with Chang -- known as ''boss lady'' -- before they were hired.

She allegedly told some workers that their food and lodging would be provided, and that they would earn about $2,800 a month but would not be paid an hourly wage; all of their earnings would come from tips.

Young also alleges in the lawsuit that Chang and her buffet manager ''collected kickbacks in cash'' from the waiters and waitresses, ranging from $210 to $250 every two weeks.

In late 2007, the lawsuit says, the wait staff refused to pay the kickbacks and openly questioned their legality. After being threatened with firing, the lawsuit says, all of the waiters and waitresses agreed to pay the kickbacks.

Over time, as the workers started to complain about working conditions, the lawsuit says, the restaurant owners retaliated against the wait staff by refusing to seat customers in the sections they were assigned to serve.

The lawsuit also says the workers were offered housing in one of two homes owned by Chen and Cheng, on Dennett and Capisic streets in Portland. Their son lived upstairs in the home on Dennett Street.

Young claims the homes were overcrowded and the living conditions were ''substandard and at times squalid.'' The basement where some workers lived flooded.

Young said the workers initially contacted the Urban Justice Center in New York about their concerns.

The center then contacted James Tierney, a former Maine attorney general who has been teaching law at Columbia University in New York.

Tierney, who worked for Young's law firm, McTeague Higbee of Topsham, put the workers in touch with Young.

Young met with the plaintiffs in June before filing the federal lawsuit.

He said that, to his knowledge, Chen and Chang are aware of the lawsuit but have not hired an attorney.

Young said his clients asked that a press conference be held outside the popular restaurant.

''It will call attention to the fact that, hidden from our view here in our beautiful state of Maine, are workers who are being denied minimum wages and overtime. This is not the way life should be,'' he said.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.com

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