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Restaurants, employment agency ordered to pay back wages to immigrant workers

Two restaurants and an employment agency charged with mistreating and underpaying immigrant workers who are in the country without authorization were ordered to pay back wages and penalties in a consent decree issued this week in federal court.

The decree issued by Judge John Zee called for a total $212,500 in back wages and penalties to be paid out to several employees of Hibachi Sushi Buffet in Cicero, Hibachi Grill Buffet in Elk Grove Village and Jiao's Employment Agency in Chinatown.

In addition, the consent decree — in which the judge oversees and monitors the execution of the settlement — requires the businesses to change their employment practices. The decree calls for the employers to keep records of employees' hours and wages, provide training on employment discrimination laws, develop and implement an anti-discrimination policy, and provide training. In addition, if the employers provide lodging, they are to ensure it is free of cockroaches and other vermin, includes utilities, such as heat and running water, and contains a working bathroom, among other conditions.

The employers also must not "compel" workers to pay for food as a condition of their employment or deduct the cost of food from their paychecks.

The terms of the consent degree will be in effect for four to five years.

"These employment agencies and restaurants exploited workers through inhumane working conditions and discrimination, violating both the state's wage laws and their civil rights," Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who filed the original lawsuit, said in an e-mailed statement. "These court-enforceable settlements will ensure that the restaurants and employment agencies comply with the law by changing their practices, treating all employees equally, and paying them what they have earned."

The original lawsuit, filed in 2015 by Madigan, alleged that the owners of three agencies in Chicago's Chinatown, including Jiao's, Xing Ying Employment Agency and Chinatown Agencia De Empleo, and the two restaurants took advantage of "desperately poor" immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.

The agencies, according to the suit, charged the workers up to $220 in referral fees to take jobs in which they worked up to 84 hours per week without proper breaks and were paid less than half of the state's minimum wage of $8.25 an hour.

The restaurants hid the workers in kitchen jobs where customers couldn't see them, and charged them rent to live in "overcrowded, squalid conditions," according to the suit.

Hibachi Grill will shell out a total of $100,000, including seven monthly payments of at least $8,679.09, for back wages for four employees and penalties to the state. The restaurant allegedly housed 15 workers in a three-bedroom apartment that had just one bathroom and "no furniture aside from soiled mattresses, which employees had resorted to finding themselves from a nearby garage dumpster," the lawsuit said. Xi Chen, the restaurant's owner, could not be reached for comment.

Royal Cicero Inc., which operates Hibachi Sushi Buffet, will pay $96,000 in back wages and penalties, including 16 quarterly payments of at least $6,000. In this instance, seven employees will be compensated. The owner, Ke Ju Zheng, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Jiao's Employment agency will pay penalties to the state totaling $16,500. The owner of Jiao's Employment could not immediately be reached for comment.

Two employment agencies named in the original lawsuit were not included in the consent decree.

Chinatown Agencia De Empleo is no longer in business. The other, Xing Ying Employment Agency, which ran discriminatory advertisements, remains in business but is awaiting a summary judgment in which the judge makes a decision based upon the law alone.

crshropshire@chicagotribune.com

Twitter@corilyns

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