Servers working at Century Buffet on International Boulevard near the Fruitvale District were working 12-hour days, six days a week, being paid far below minimum wage or only in tips, according to a criminal complaint filed by the Alameda District Attorney. The complaint states that workers were not paid overtime and had no bathroom or lunch breaks.
On Thursday afternoon in a court room in the Hayward Hall of Justice, law enforcement officials charged the restaurant’s owner, Ji Li Zheng, with 12 felony and four misdemeanor counts for failing to collect unemployment insurance tax, evading unemployment insurance tax, worker’s compensation fraud, dissuading a witness from reporting a crime, and failing to pay minimum wage.
“This case sends a clear message that wage theft is a crime and it will be prosecuted as such in the state of California,” said State Labor Commissioner Julie A. Su in a statement released a day before Zheng’s arraignment.
According to the probable cause declaration filed by the District Attorney’s office, Zheng only reported six to 12 employees each quarter between October 1, 2010 and March 13, 2013, but in reality 60 employees had worked at the restaurant. After a June 20, 2013 audit conducted by the Labor Commissioner’s office with a search warrant, officials found payroll journals and receipts that identified 41 employees. Zheng only reported family members and not employees with Hispanic last names.
“[Zheng] is a businessman, established in the Oakland community for a period of 20 years,” said his lawyer, Robert G. Cummings during the arraignment.
Mr. Cummings couldn’t be reached for further comment on the charges against his client.
Victor Tomas Mejia Calgua, who was hired on May 2012 to work in the kitchen, lived above the restaurant with eight other Hispanic employees, according to the probable cause declaration.
The declaration states that days before the commission’s audit, Zheng told the employees to leave because police and immigration were coming to the restaurant. Zheng told employees to change their phone numbers and not talk to anyone about how much they were paid.
“Ji Li Zheng’s treatment of the workers at his restaurant was unconscionable,” said District Attorney Nancy O’Malley in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.
In total, the audit revealed that Zheng owed $520,000 in unpaid minimum wage, $550,000 in unpaid overtime, and $191,000 in premium pay for no meal and rest periods.
The case was started by the Labor Commissioner’s office about a year ago said District Attorney Erin Loback. Judge Gary M. Picetti set bail at $75,000.