Chinatown restaurants routinely pay workers less than the minimum wage, according to a study by local activists that brings the national trend of so-called wage theft home to San Francisco.
The 30-page report being released today by the Chinese Progressive Association culminates a two-year survey of about 400 workers - more than half of whom said they were being paid less than the San Francisco minimum wage, currently $9.79 per hour.
"We believe this is the largest study of its kind in the country," said Meredith Minkler, a UC Berkeley public health expert who helped train workers from Chinatown to survey their peers to penetrate the language barrier.
The reported prevalence of minimum-wage avoidance among Chinatown restaurants goes well beyond the 26 percent rate that was reported in similar, earlier surveys of low-wage workers in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York that helped establish the concept of wage theft - the nonpayment by employers of legally required pay or benefits.
State and federal officials who enforce labor laws say they have no idea how often employers avoid the state minimum of $8 per hour, or the national standard of $7.25 per hour.
But George Friday, director of the wage and hour division of the federal Labor Department office in San Francisco, said certain industries - restaurants, home health care, agriculture, security, garment and janitorial - are more prone to violations, and workers from immigrant populations with limited English skills are particularly vulnerable.
"In California, there is an underground economy that surpasses that of most states," Friday said.
Krisann Chasarik, with the California labor commissioner's office, said the state inspected more than 9,000 businesses last year for all manner of violations, the most common being lack of workers' compensation benefits. Minimum-wage violations were just 113 of those actions.
"We need evidence," she said, adding that many employees in wage theft situations "are unwilling or afraid" to talk.
One innovation in the Chinatown survey is that the interviews were conducted by restaurant workers trained by experts from UC Berkeley, UCSF and other cooperating entities including the San Francisco Department of Health and the city's Office of Labor Standards and Enforcement.
"White, middle-class outsiders could never have gotten this," said Berkeley's Minkler.
Two of the workers who conducted the interviews spoke through an interpreter about what they hope will come of their findings.
"The minimum wage is to protect the bottom rung of the working people," said Bing Zhu. "If you didn't, the bosses would just push the wages lower and lower."
Li Shuang Li, a former restaurant worker who is now a full-time mother, said, "We want the government to step up the enforcement of labor laws."
But that will be tough because workers are only willing to push so far.
For instance, when the survey found that one restaurant owner had failed to pay anything at all to 14 workers for periods ranging from three to 10 months, a delegation of employees and activists confronted the employer and demanded the back wages. They settled for the subminimum wage the employer had promised rather than the city-mandated minimum.
San Francisco's Chinese Chamber of Commerce could not be reached for comment, but Norman Fong, with the Chinatown Community Development Center, said the findings will cause a stir.
"It's going to shake up quite a few things in the community," he said.
Workers who wish to report violations of labor laws can call the state labor commissioner's office at (415) 703-4810 or the federal enforcement office at (415) 625-7720.