The vulnerable population: Recent restaurant violation sheds light on employment discrimination issues
Steamboat Springs — Deborah Yun never imagined that answering an employment ad would make her feel taken advantage of, angry and scared.
The 41-year-old is originally from Mongolia and had been living in Texas looking for work.
On May 20, she saw an advertisement for employment. She called and agreed to take the job in Denver. She felt safe living there because there was a Mongolian Christian church.
“The lady who answered the phone said she would book the plane ticket,” Yun said through an interpreter provided by the Integrated Community organization in Steamboat Springs.
Yun hurriedly told her story July 20 just minutes before getting picked up by a shuttle to return home to Texas.
After taking the job, Yun said she was told she would be provided with another plane ticket to return home after three months.
“She was happy, so she took the job,” the interpreter said.
Initially, Yun was told she would be paid $1,800 each month and would be paid every two weeks.
She assumed she would be working eight-hour days, but instead, she worked 12-hour shifts.
Her housing was going to be provided.
After arriving at Denver International Airport on May 25, she waited three hours before getting picked up by three people in a car. By that time, it was late at night, and she was scared.
Yun said she was taken to a massage business where they stayed for several hours before leaving again. She thought she was being taken to the restaurant where she would be working in Denver. Instead, she was driven three hours to Steamboat.
At one point while working at the Steamboat restaurant, she discovered $1,000 had been stolen from her luggage. Yun said her employer told her not to report the theft to police.
After long days of restaurant work, Yun’s hand began to hurt, and on July 15, she told her employer that she wanted to leave.
Yun said she went to the house where she had been living to retrieve her Bible. Seven restaurant workers lived there, and they were told not to let her in, Yun said.
Her last paycheck showed she was paid $6.40 per hour.
Yun has no way to document if she was underpaid. Yun said she was told the plane ticket was deducted from her paycheck. It was not clear whether she was also charged for housing.
Scared and with no place to stay, Yun turned to the United Methodist Church of Steamboat Springs for help.
“All she can do is cry, so the people from the church helped her,” the interpreter said. “She’s got nothing and nobody to help her, and she’s obviously unhappy.”
LiftUP of Routt County, Routt County United Way and Integrated Community did what they could. They scrambled to find her a place to stay for the night and the cost of the shuttle was covered to take her back to Denver International Airport. Yun was eventually able to retrieve her Bible.
Integrated Community Executive Director Sheila Henderson said stories like Yun’s are not uncommon in Steamboat. She said there are people from 30 different countries living in Steamboat, and they tend to be more vulnerable to being taken advantage of because of linguistic and cultural barriers.
“Immigrants, they just don’t understand our systems,” Henderson said. “Our systems are so complex compared to some other countries.”
Integrated Community does what it can to help, and the federal government can take action if they learn labor and discrimination laws were violated.
That was the case this week when the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced a Steamboat restaurant would pay $50,000 for failing to pay proper wages to Latino workers because of race or origin.
The EEOC did not disclose the name of the restaurant, but there are no indications it was where Yun worked. It is unclear whether Yun’s restaurant violated any laws.
EEOC spokeswoman Justine Lisser said the restaurant agreed to pay $50,000 as a settlement before the case went to court, so the EEOC could not identify the restaurant without permission.
“In fact, our confidentiality rules prohibit us from even publicizing a specific conciliation without permission,” Lisser said.
The Steamboat Pilot & Today filed a Freedom of Information Act request for information about the case, and it was denied Wednesday.
As part of the settlement, the EEOC was able to release some details about the settlement involving eight employees.
The EEOC found the restaurant failed to pay appropriate regular and overtime wages, failed to provide legally required benefits and fostered a hostile work environment.
Employees who were interviewed by EEOC said they frequently had to ask to get paid, and they were paid as infrequently as once every six or seven weeks. Some had to wait three months to get paid even though they were told they would get paid every two weeks.
“Workers tend to think of wage theft as strictly a wage and hour issue,” EEOC Phoenix District Regional Attorney Mary Jo O’Neill said in a news release. “But EEOC wants to let all workers know: If you and your coworkers are being paid less than you are entitled to, or are being paid irregularly, because of your race, national origin or immigration status, then contact us. EEOC protects all workers in this country from discriminatory abuses. It is illegal for an employer to steal wages from you for any reason.”
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