Employees file lawsuit against popular Bay Area restaurant
on September 12, 2016
About 100 current and former employees of the popular Bay Area restaurant chain Burma Superstar have filed a lawsuit claiming pay and benefit violations.
The workers claim that Burma Superstar—in its three restaurants in San Francisco, Oakland and Alameda—routinely failed to pay minimum wages or overtime, while denying mandatory breaks and sick leave. The lawsuit also alleges the restaurants failed to keep accurate payroll records.
The restaurant had not yet responded publicly to the lawsuit as of Sunday. Efforts to reach the business or its attorneys were unsuccessful. An attorney who has represented the business in the past did not immediately return phone calls on Sunday.
Burma Superstar, which began in San Francisco before expanding to the East Bay, is considered one of the leaders of a recent boom in Burmese cuisine.
The lawsuit brings new attention to the allegedly unsavory working conditions behind the scenes in one of the nation’s most celebrated restaurant cultures. Workers are seeking class action status for the lawsuit, filed Thursday in Alameda County Superior Court.
The workers are being represented by the legal aid agencies Centro Legal de la Raza, Asian Law Caucus and the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center. Their lawsuit has been in the works for six months, when workers first sought help from the Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland.
Shira Levine, a litigation attorney for Centro Legal de la Raza, which serves mainly low-income and Spanish-speaking people, said during an interview that the lawsuit focuses on employees working in the kitchen and busing tables. The plaintiffs are “almost entirely very low-income immigrant workers” who speak Spanish, Chinese and Burmese, she said.
Levine said the Bay Area restaurant industry, a huge draw to tourists and locals, is built “very much on the backs of a largely immigrant workforce” too often exploited by restaurant owners.
William Navarrete, a former dishwasher, kitchen assistant and cook at all three Burma Superstar locations, said he was initially afraid to come forward for fear that it “would make it harder for me to get work in the future.”
Later, Navarrete, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he realized that “unless workers like me speak up, restaurant owners can continue to take advantage of workers, and other workers who have the same hopes and fears as me will continue to lose their hard-earned wages.”
Alisa Whitfield, a San Francisco immigration attorney not directly involved in the litigation, said it was likely difficult for the workers to reach the point of filing suit. “It’s very frightening for people from these communities to come forward to talk about the workplace abuses that are taking place,” she said.
Whitfield said the immigration system prevents many people from gaining legal status in the United States, and this “allows for this huge shadow underground economy to exist where people can be underpaid and exploited.”
Even when immigrants have work permits, they’re often “afraid that they could lose their very existence in this country,” she added.
Levine said the workers involved in the lawsuit are “also speaking out for many, many workers behind them, [who] for fear of retaliation or losing their job didn’t want to come forward.” Some of the workers approached management about the problems, and some were afraid to do so, Levine said.
Centro Legal de la Raza contacted Burma Superstar owners before the lawsuit was filed on Thursday. Levine said the workers hope the lawsuit pressures Burma Superstar to “change all of its practices that are in violation of the law,” and will allow workers to “recoup their owed wages—the wages that they’ve been waiting years to receive.”
Attorneys for the legal aid organizations said they hoped customers would help pressure the company to improve its workplace practices, but stopped short of calling for a boycott. Attorneys said they hope the restaurant continues to thrive.
Levine also said the plaintiffs “would be very happy to resolve this case without the need for a trial.”
Beyond this case, the organizations involved hope to create ripples throughout the restaurant industry. Centro Legal de la Raza represents many restaurant workers and Levine said the kind of issues raised in the new lawsuit are widespread.
“Unfortunately the same practices that we’re alleging in Burma Superstar are all too common throughout the Bay Area restaurant industry,” she said.
She said the lawsuit may help convince other restaurant owners “that it’s not worth it to violate the wage laws.”
Oakland North Staff Writer Chenwei Tian contributed to this report.
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