Immigrant Workers Win $60K Settlement from Lee’s Deli Restaurants

June 6, 2024 News

Media Contacts:
Tiffany Louie, [email protected], ‪(415) 326-6513‬, Chinese Progressive Association
Niketa Kumar, [email protected], Asian Law Caucus

Immigrant Workers Win $60K Settlement from Lee’s Deli Restaurants

A Victory Made Possible by Government-Community Partnership

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — 17 Chinese immigrant workers have won a $60,000 settlement from their former employer, Lee’s Deli restaurant. Workers affected include former dishwashers, prep cooks, sandwich makers, cashiers, and office workers who had worked for over 10 years at Lee’s Deli, which did not financially survive the pandemic and permanently closed. The victory is particularly notable given the difficulty of recovering unpaid wages after a business closure.

Workers courageously came forward to the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) in January 2024. With the outreach education and legal support of CPA and the Asian Law Caucus (ALC), in partnership with the San Francisco Office of Labor Standards Enforcement (OLSE), workers persisted and have won back amounts equivalent to the full wages OLSE assessed is owed to them, plus 1 week of vacation pay.

This victory comes at a time when Mayor Breed has proposed a nearly 50% cut to the Workers’ Rights Community Collaborative (WRCC) for Fiscal Year 2024-2025 – the partnership which was part of making this win possible.
CPA and ALC are 2 of the 7 organizations in the WRCC with track record and expertise, long standing relationships and trust, as well as cultural and linguistic skills to reach low-wage immigrant workers, educate them about their workplace rights and options, and help them in asserting those rights.

Lei Pan first began working at Lee’s Deli when he immigrated to the U.S. from China in 2005. He said, “When I left Lee’s Deli last May, I thought the boss would actually pay us back. But [when the business closed], he didn’t pay us back, and there was no indication that he was going to. We felt that if we didn’t take action, we wouldn’t get the wages we were owed.”

Former Lee’s Deli worker Ruixian Liang shared, “When I saw other coworkers come together, I had more confidence to ask for my unpaid wages. There’s more power when we take action together. Unpaid wages are very common in the low-wage industry. We need more resources and support to have more workers’ rights protection. We, the workers, should have dignity and decent lives.”

Wage theft remains a major issue for working people in California and the Bay Area, especially in certain low-wage industries. A recent report published by Rutgers University just last month, estimates that nearly 14 percent of workers in the San Francisco area were paid below the SF minimum wage in 2014-2023.

For decades, CPA and partners like ALC have reached out to immigrant workers to share about their rights and ways to improve their working conditions, and make ends meet for their families and co-workers. Former Lee’s Deli workers were able to win their back wages because of the partnership between the OLSE and the on-the-ground, trusted community organizations like CPA and ALC.

“Outreach and education are among our most powerful enforcement tools against workplace violations. Without them, struggling community members don’t have the knowledge or access to resources to vindicate their rights,” said Mei Mei Chan, Asian Law Caucus. “The proposed budget cuts undermine protections for low-income communities. When workers know their rights and can access help through a lengthy legal process, they are able to pull through economic crises, continue to care for their families, and stay in San Francisco.”

Since the beginning of July 2022, the WRCC has reached 23,340 workers in San Francisco in 10 languages. With the support of the Collaborative and other enforcement partnerships, workers have collectively recovered over $2 million in owed wages and other compensations.

The Collaborative’s partnership with OLSE has been a model for outreach and enforcement partnerships at the state level (CSEP) and beyond. Across the state, tens of thousands of workers and tenants in monolingual immigrant communities need these vital outreach and education services as part of the strategic enforcement done by the city, in order to create safety and dignity in their workplaces. Just last year, the SF Office of Labor Standards Enforcement collected at least $21 million in restitution for more than 14,000 workers. “OLSE is excited that our collaboration with CPA and ALC resulted in positive outcomes for the benefit of San Francisco workers,” said the San Francisco Office of Labor Standards Enforcement.

“The major victory of the worker’s at Lee’s Deli is indicative of how effective the partnerships are between community organizations and enforcement agencies. Through these partnerships, immigrant workers are able to get the support they need, in their language, to not only know about their rights, but take actionable steps to obtaining the restitution that they and their families need and deserve,” said Andres Pomart, Associate Director of Trabajadores Unidos Workers United (TUWU).

“The most vulnerable workers among us - restaurant workers, domestic workers, delivery drivers, and janitorial workers - are also more likely to endure wage theft. SF should be leading the nation in workers' rights as it has always been. Programs that help workers get stolen wages back are essential, and should not be cut,” said Kim Tavaglione, Executive Director of the San Francisco Labor Council.

“It has always been essential workers who're taking care of us, but working families are struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. The Mayor and her administration have to make difficult choices to balance our city’s budget. As a city that is proud of our values of celebrating diversity and taking care of everyone, we must live up to it and prioritize supporting vulnerable communities,” said Jenny Huang, Worker Alliance Manager of the Chinese Progressive Association.

For Lei Pan, the former Lee’s Deli worker, he wants other workers, customers, and community members to know, “If you experience violations, discrimination at work, keep the evidence and get together with your coworkers. Every step means more hope. The boss would not hear your voice if just one single person talks… Only solidarity and voicing up will make a difference to improve our work conditions.”

About Chinese Progressive Association
Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) is a nonprofit that educates, organizes and empowers the low-income and working class immigrant Chinese community in San Francisco to build collective power with other oppressed communities to demand better living and working conditions and justice for all people. CPA has been organizing with workers in San Francisco’s Chinese immigrant community since the 1970s, and to date, has supported workers winning back $8.28 million in wages from high profile settlement cases.

About Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus
Asian Law Caucus (ALC) was founded in 1972 as the nation’s first legal and civil rights organization focusing on the needs of low-income, immigrant and underserved Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Recognizing that social, economic, political, and racial inequalities continue to exist in the United States, ALC is committed to the pursuit of equality and justice for all sectors of our society.

About Workers’ Rights Community Collaborative (WRCC)
The Workers Rights Community Collaborative (WRCC) is contracted through the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement (OLSE) to conduct outreach and education to workers about their rights. The WRCC consists of Asian Law Caucus, Chinese Progressive Association, Dolores Street Community Services, Filipino Community Center, La Raza Centro Legal, South of Market Community Action, Trabajadores Unidos Workers United.