Feds: Korean restaurants in Oregon stole workers’ money

“Wage theft, like that found in this case, hurts these essential workers and their families"

PORTLAND, Ore (KOIN) — An investigation revealed wage theft and other violations against a restaurant with locations in Portland and Salem.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, its wage and hour division found the operators of KKOKI Korean BBQ restaurants in Portland, Eugene and Salem withheld tips earned by workers, allowed managers to take a portion workers’ tips and paid overtime wages only when workers exceeded 86 hours per pay period instead of after 40 hours per week as the Fair Labor Standards Act requires.

The department said its investigation revealed 118 shortchanged restaurant workers at the three locations with the employer not keeping accurate employee records.

“The investigation led to a total recovery of $169,728, representing $84,864 in back wages and an equal amount in liquidated damage,” said the U.S. Department of Labor. “In addition, the division assessed $30,199 in penalties for the willful nature of the employer’s violations.”

Carrie Aguilar, the wage and hour division’s district director, said that restaurant industry workers are paid some of the country’s lowest wages, yet many put themselves at risk throughout the pandemic to serve their customers and help employers keep their businesses open.

“Wage theft, like that found in this case, hurts these essential workers and their families,” Aguilar said. “Business owners must understand that violations can limit their ability to recruit and retain the people who do these jobs. As we’ve seen, the pandemic has prompted many restaurant industry workers to find employment that better suits their needs and find jobs with employers who will pay them all the wages they have earned.”

In fiscal year 2021, the wage and hour division said it conducted 4,237 investigations in the food service industry, recovering $34.7 million in back wages for more than 29,000 employees nationwide.

KOIN 6 News reached out to KKOKI Korean BBQ for comment.

The owners, Thai Do and Partners, said that the investigation was triggered by a “disgruntled” former cook at their Salem location after they “refused to give into his demands.”

“Please understand that we are still a small business and thus, don’t always know everything there is know about labor laws,” said the Thai Do and Partners in a statement. “As such, we were found to have been non-compliant in certain areas that lead to investigators to conclude that we had shorted our employees, particularly salary cooks. These employees were paid in a way that may have appeared like they were underpaid or lacked overtime pay to investigators.”

They added, “As for tips being withheld, that is completely false and I don’t know how investigators would have been able to determine that that was the case. As for allowing managers to share a portion of employees’ tips, there could’ve been a misunderstanding of how one of our managers at our Salem location was previously a server at our Eugene location and thus was entitled to a share of the tips at that time.”

The partners said they settled with the U.S. Department of Labor and agreed to pay the back-wages and penalties than continuing to spend energy and resources to fight the findings. They said the business has also changed how they pay employees in order to be “compliant.”