Local restaurant owner sentenced for wage theft

Posted at 4:05 PM, Dec 12, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-12 22:13:54-05

SAN DIEGO - A two-year jail sentence was handed down for a San Diego restaurant owner who promised wages to immigrant workers but often paid them only in tips, California Labor Commissioner Julie Su announced Monday.

According to evidence presented at trial, Zihan Zhang, owner of the now-shuttered Antique Thai Cuisine in San Diego, paid some kitchen staff as little as $4 an hour and forced them to work during breaks and meal periods.

The owner further collected a portion of the tips from the unpaid workers and charged them $5 per shift for "glass breakage" to offset her operating costs, Su said.

"She was a very greedy person," said former worker Tita Ghanjanasak. "Her excuse was she was behind, she needs help with everything. Everyone was trying to be understandable."

Ghanjanasak said she worked the restaurant for three months and was fired after confronting Zhang about not being paid. Ghanjanasak said the loss of income forced her into homelessness.

"It was really hard to get by, get another job after that," she said.

"Our investigation uncovered egregious wage theft and worker abuse -- our collaboration with the San Diego District Attorney has resulted in the first criminal conviction of its kind in our state," Su said. "California will continue to hold the line in ensuring that workers' rights are protected."

The Labor Commissioner's Office referred the case in August 2014, and worked with the San Diego County District Attorney's Office to bring Zhang to trial. It is the first criminal jury trial conviction in California for felony grand wage theft by false pretenses, according to Su.

Zhang, 38, was convicted in May of two counts of grand theft of labor for failing to pay workers as promised and one count of grand theft of tips, along with misdemeanor charges of failing to provide itemized wage statements.

"With the Labor Commissioner's assistance, we delivered justice for workers who were repeatedly abused by a dishonest employer," said San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. "Prosecuting these types of cases helps ensure a level playing field for honest employers to fairly compete in the marketplace."

The trial included testimony from one worker who worked 12 days in a row, including double shifts, and was not paid her hourly wage. Video footage showed the worker asking Zhang about payments she was owed when Zhang fired her.

Zhang also charged another server for customers' meals when they left before the food was served.

As part of her sentence handed down earlier this month, Zhang was also ordered to repay $20,000 in stolen wages and tips to six of the restaurant workers.