Feds claim Bellis Fair restaurant, massage kiosks underpaid employees

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 19, 2013 

SEATTLE - A federal judge is expected to decide Wednesday, June 19, whether to order restaurant and massage businesses to stop threatening their employees for cooperating in a federal investigation of those shops at Bellis Fair mall.

Following an investigation that covered 2010 to 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor is accusing the two businesses, J&J Mongolian Grill and Spa Therapy, of paying employees less than the federal minimum wage, not paying for overtime, and not keeping proper employee records.

The restaurant is in the food court at the mall. Two Spa Therapy locations are also in the mall, providing massages at kiosks. The owners, Huang Jie and his wife, Zhao Zeng Hong, also ran a Spa Therapy in Alderwood Mall in Lynnwood. That store also was under investigation. It closed in January, 2012, according to court records.

Cooks, cashiers and kitchen helpers at J&J Mongolian Grill and masseuses at Spa Therapy were paid less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and were not paid for overtime, according to the Labor Department. (The federal case involves the federal wage; the minimum wage in Washington state is $9.19 an hour.)

Restaurant employees were required to work six days a week, and Spa Therapy employees were scheduled to work seven days a week, the department said.

The owners of the businesses promised some of the employees up to $2,500 per month but didn't follow through, court documents said. The businesses employed more than 100 people.

The lawsuit, filed May 17 in U.S. District Court in Seattle, also claims the businesses' owners threatened to report employees to immigration authorities, or falsely report to police they were stealing, if they cooperated with the Labor Department in its investigation.

"Many of (the employees) are Chinese," said Donna Hart, director of the Seattle office of the Wage and Hour Division of the Labor Department. "Many of the workers speak Chinese as their first language."

The business owners also searched employees' private property, both at work and where they lived, court documents said. At least some employees lived at residences provided by Huang and Zhao.

Records of workers' hours and pay were falsified, and the business owners told employees to lie to federal officials about their wages, according to the documents.

Huang and Zhao's attorney, Vic Lam of Seattle, said he couldn't comment on an ongoing case.

In a document Lam filed in federal court on behalf of his clients, the attorney argued the government's case was so vague that it was "well nigh impossible" to give a meaningful response. Accusations of threats amounted to "untestable hearsay" from unnamed employees, the defendants' filing said.

"One needs to know what one is accused of in order to answer in a meaningful way," the document said.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik will hear arguments on the injunction against threats by the employer at 9 a.m. Wednesday. A trial date has not yet been set, Hart said.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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