Human Resources News & Insights

Restaurant owner sentenced to two years in jail for wage theft

The stakes for violating wage and hour laws in California just got raised. In a landmark decision, a San Diego restaurant owner was sentenced to two years in jail for wage theft and labor violations. 

The state Labor Commissioner’s Office and the San Diego District Attorney’s Office alleged that Zihan Zhang, owner of Antique Thai Cuisine in San Diego, targeted immigrant workers who were promised wages but then often paid only in tips. Some of the kitchen staff were paid as little as $4 an hour and forced to work during breaks and meal periods.

The owner also collected a portion of the tips from the unpaid workers, and charged them $5 a shift for “glass breakage” to offset her operating costs, officials said.

The jury trial included testimony from one worker who worked 12 days in a row, including double shifts, and was not paid her hourly wage. Video footage showed the worker asking Zhang about payments she was owed when Zhang fired her. Zhang also charged another server for customers’ meals when they left before the food was served.

Zhang was convicted of two felony counts of grand theft of labor for failing to pay workers as promised, one felony count of grand theft of tips and six misdemeanor charges, including two for refusing to pay wages when she had the ability to do so and four counts for failing to provide itemized wage statements.

It’s the first criminal jury trial conviction in California for felony grand wage theft by false pretenses. San Diego County Superior Court further required the owner to repay $20,000 in stolen wages and tips to six of the restaurant workers.

The wage theft came to light in 2014 after some of the workers filed wage claims with the Labor Commissioner’s Office.

After an investigation, the Labor Commissioner’s Office cited Antique Thai more than $36,000, including assessments of $14,567 for rest and meal period premiums, wages, overtime and liquidated damages, and civil penalties of $22,050 for failure to provide itemized wage statements as well as overtime, minimum wage, rest and meal period requirements.

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