Alleged violations of labor law are found everywhere, including well-known, high-end restaurants. One such restaurant is Urasawa, a sushi bar in California where a bill for two typically exceeds $1,000. Despite the high cost of eating there, a recent wage and hour lawsuit against the restaurant alleges that the employees do not benefit from the high tab the patrons are paying.
One such employee, Heriberto Zamora, is a Mexican immigrant who worked at Urasawa for five years. He started as a dishwasher and worked his way up to food preparation. However, when he was promoted to food preparer and given a pay raise to $9 per hour, he was also allegedly required to come up with $700 to buy his own set of knives.
The wage and hour lawsuit filed by Zamora alleges that the kitchen staff at the restaurant was required to work 12-hour shifts without any overtime compensation. According to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, all hourly employees working in the United States are entitled to one and one-half times their normal hourly rate of pay for each hour that they work in excess of eight hours a day or forty hours in a week. Zamora alleges that he regularly worked 60 hours a week, but that he was never paid for those extra 20 hours.
In addition to the violation of overtime wages, the restaurant also allegedly failed to provide its employees with the requisite meal and rest periods. According to the California labor law, employers are required to provide their workers with a paid 10-minute uninterrupted rest break for every four hours worked and an unpaid 30-minute meal break for every five hours worked. According to Zamora, he and the other kitchen staff were never permitted to take these breaks while working for Urasawa. Zamora alleges he had to pee in a sink which was designed to rinse floor mops because Urasawa (the owner and namesake of the restaurant) allegedly forbade Zamora from using the customer facilities during business hours.
Although the restaurant, which serves lavish dishes that include caviar and gold flakes, had a reputation for sparing no expense for its valued guests, the courtesy apparently did not extend to the employees. Zamora describes the disconnect between the guests and the staff in a quote to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “None of the employees were treated very well. We knew people were paying a lot to eat there, but for us, it was no different.”
One day, after having worked for nine hours straight, Zamora allegedly began coughing and to feel like he was coming down with a fever. He asked to take off sick and Urasawa allegedly fired Zamora on the spot.
Julie Su, the labor commissioner for the state of California, admits that such cases of taking advantage of low-level employees are not uncommon. “There are countless examples in which workers are taking home less than they’ve earned,” she says. Reports say that investigators wait outside to watch workers come and go. They then compare what they see to the employers’ time records.
The trial court ruled in Zamora’s favor, issuing a fine of $55,000 to Urasawa for failing to pay overtime and to provide breaks to Zamora and to three other employees. Urasawa appealed the ruling.