Monday, December 15, 2008, 1:06 PM

Grilling Your Employer

New York City's Saigon Grill, with two (formerly three) locations in Manhattan, is in hot water with wage-hour cases. Last October, a federal judge ordered the restaurant's owners, Simon (Chang S.) and Michelle (Pei Ying) Nget, to pay $4.6 million in back pay and liquidated damages to 35 delivery employees who worked 6 or 7 days, between 70 and 80 hours, per week, for around $1.70 per hour; while they received tips, the litigation was hampered by the employer's inability or unwillingness to produce pay and tip records, thereby allowing the plaintiffs to estimate how long they worked and what they were paid. Plaintiffs were represented by the venerable Wall Street firm of Davis, Polk & Wardwell along with the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund. The National Labor Relations Board, in a separate proceeding, ordered Saigon Grill to rehire terminated employees.

Now the situation has become even more serious: On December 3, the Ngets were arrested on state criminal charges including criminal wage violations, paying illegal kickbacks and falsifying business records; the New York Attorney General's office claims that workers had to cash their paychecks with the company, which then gave them significantly less to keep. The charges, a mix of felonies and misdemeanors, total more than 400. In a press release, AG Andrew Cuomo said, "Like so many restaurants across New York City, Saigon Grill was run on the backs of its workers." How's that for a warm holiday message?

The cases are Ke v. Saigon Grill Inc., 1:07-CV-2329 (S.D.N.Y.); Saigon Grill, Inc., No. 2-CA- (NLRB); and State v. Nget.

The moral of the story, lest it not be obvious, is that compliance with the law is far less expensive than getting caught. While the presumption of innocence is still firmly in place, the Ngets have lots of explaining to do.

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