Jury awards Bellingham workers $1.3 million in back pay, damages

More than 100 employees of two local businesses were awarded more than $1.3 million in back wages and damages.

A U.S. District Court jury decided that the owners of J&J Mongolian Grill and Spa Therapy paid 101 employees less than the federal minimum wage, didn’t pay for overtime, and didn’t keep proper employee records, in a case that was finalized at the end of March.

Huang “Jackie” Jie and Zhao “Jenny” Zeng Hong owned the businesses, which are now closed, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Labor. The jury also found the owners interfered with, and retaliated against, workers, most of whom spoke little to no English, according to the government agency.

Both of the businesses were at Bellis Fair mall. The spa closed in February; the Mongolian Grill closed in December.

According to court documents, $652,859 must be paid to the workers for back wages, including overtime, while the same amount must be paid in damages. Another $31,800 will be paid to four workers who suffered retaliation, including threats, reduction of hours, and termination of employment.

Glyn Lewis, a Seattle attorney hired by the defendants after the trial, is reviewing the case while they decide whether to appeal. He said the jury award amount for damages was punitive, and said the government didn’t take into account free rent that was given to the employees. Many of the employees lived on property provided by the defendants while working at the businesses.

Janet Herold, a regional solicitor for the U.S. Department of Labor, said it was an important case not only for the employees involved, but to show that the government is serious about pursuing such cases to the end.

“What is worth noting is the courage of the people coming forward to testify,” Herold said, adding that testimony from former employees was particularly important to the case.

In an investigation that stretched back to 2010, the department’s Wage and Hour Division found that employees at both businesses averaged more than 70 hours of work during a six- or seven-day work week.

Herold said that along with the language barrier, having employees living on the property of the business owners made it even more intimidating for them to testify.

“That’s what made them vulnerable (to being exploited),” she said.

The called the verdict a warning to others who try to shortchange their workers to maximize profits.

Overall wage theft is on the rise, particularly in three categories, according to Herold. Along with outright theft, not correctly classifying employees to avoid paying wages is happening more often, she said. The third component is retaliation, particularly when an employee discovers the theft and reports it to enforcement agencies.