About Burned: Abuse in LA’s Restaurant Industry

Walk into any restaurant in Los Angeles and you’ll likely read menus boasting of free-range meat, free-trade coffee and cruelty free poultry, allowing patrons to eat with a conscience. Some restaurants proudly show off their A grades from the health department as evidence of a clean kitchen. But nowhere do these establishments show their record of fairness to employees.

About the series

Walk into any restaurant in Los Angeles and you’ll likely read menus boasting of free-range meat, free-trade coffee and cruelty free poultry, allowing patrons to eat with a conscience. Some restaurants proudly show off their A grades from the health department as evidence of a clean kitchen. But nowhere do these establishments show their record of fairness to employees. Thus, there’s no easy way to track the bad actors accused of stealing paychecks, hiding injuries or abusing employees. The victims of abuse often don’t have the resources to fight back – when they do, some sink deeper into poverty, even homelessness.

KCRW investigative reporter, Karen Foshay spoke with dozens of restaurant workers, labor lawyers, and government enforcers, and sifted through thousands of public records concerning Los Angeles-area restaurants.

About the data

When workers are not paid fairly, they have little recourse but to turn to the office of California Labor Commissioner. There they can file a wage claim for the amount they say they’re owed. 40,000 wage claims are filed annually. Out of these, ten percent are filed against restaurants. KCRW wanted to know what happened to a wage claim once it’s filed and how likely workers are to receive fair compensation.

Once a wage claim is filed, it can be dismissed, settled, withdrawn or a hearing officer can issue a decision on whether the worker is owed unpaid wages by the employer. Once that decision is made and is not appealed, it goes to the court where it’s stamped as a judgment. Often called a paper judgment, it’s then up to the workers to collect on it. There are several ways to enforce a judgment: negotiate directly with their employers, seek assistance from a recovery service, ask the Labor Commissioner for assistance or hire a private attorney.

The rate of collection in California is low according to various state and academic studies. KCRW’s review of over 400 judgments and decisions found approximately one in four workers collected on their award.

KCRW reviewed over 2300 wage claims filed by LA area restaurant workers between January 2013 through May 2016 in the Los Angeles and Long Beach offices of the Labor Commissioner. Data from the Van Nuys office was not available. 

We then narrowed our focus to 448 decisions made by Labor Commissioner hearing officers, ordering restaurant owners to reimburse workers for back or unpaid wages, fees and interest. The 448 decisions were cross referenced with records at the Los Angeles Superior Court, verifying how many became clerk’s judgments. We removed six cases in which the employer won on appeal. We then analyzed the 441 judgments and decisions ordering restaurants to pay various amounts to their employees.

KCRW found that $6.7 million was awarded to the employees, but 75 percent hadn’t received any payment.

Some workers settled their judgments privately with an employer. They are under no obligation to notify the Labor Commissioner or the court of any settlement, which can involve a confidential sum. For this reason, the amount of money collected may be higher.

The top judgments

According to the data, the following 20 restaurants had the highest judgments and decisions against them.

Some of these restaurants have closed, others appear to be different restaurants with some similar sounding names. For example, Chef Marilyn’s Soul Food Express is now Chef Marilyn’s Southern Cuisine.

KCRW has not determined if ownership has changed for any of these establishments.

Top 20 restaurants with highest judgments against them
Name Amount
China Express (Commerce, CA 90022) $280,570
Nem Noung Ninh Restaurant (Rosemead, CA 91770) $231,272
China Wok (Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90025) $229,839
Los Angeles Brewing Company (Los Angeles, CA 90014) $222,207
Mandarin Cuisine (Los Angeles, CA. 90066) $208,401
Panadería Latina (Los Angeles, CA 90006) $192,432
El Korita Jr. Restaurant (Los Angeles, CA 90001) $183,154
Art’s Wings & Things (Inglewood, CA 90303) $167,173
New Rasbhog (Artesia, CA 90701) $139,383
Seoul Tofu ( Monterey Park 91754) $129,933
Cemitas Tepeaca (Los Angeles, CA 90023) $119,189
Antojitos Denise’s (Los Angeles, CA 9002) $116,746
Orchid Thai Cuisine (Arcadia, CA 91007) $113,976
Chef Marilyn’s 99 Cents Soul Food Express (Los Angeles, CA 90016) $113,446
Agra Indian Kitchen (Venice, CA 90291) $112,332
Shaanxi Gourmet (Rosemead, CA 91770) $94,170
Tila’s Kitchen (Los Angeles, CA 90023) $93,292
Tacos Don Chente (Norwalk) $87,472
Geo’s Organic Coffee (Culver City, 90230) $85,198
Sinbala Restaurant (Arcadia, CA 91007) $79,849

Data analysis by Miguel Contreras

Burned: Abuse in LA’s Restaurant Industry was made possible by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

Producer: Karen Foshay
Associate Producer: Miguel Contreras