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Bay Area Restaurant Workers Mobilize for Fair Pay and an Equitable Industry

September 29, 2021 Perspective


Winifred Kao

Winifred Kao

Senior Counsel, Impact Litigation & Senior Staff Attorney, Workers' Rights

Winifred Kao

Senior Counsel, Impact Litigation & Senior Staff Attorney, Workers' Rights

Winifred Kao is Senior Counsel for Impact Litigation at ALC. She also leads ALC’s Workers’ Rights Program. She served as ALC’s Litigation Director from 2011 – 2020 during which time she helped provide direction and support on ALC’s impact litigation across program areas. Prior to coming to ALC, Winnie worked at a union-side labor and employment law firm where she primarily represented hotel, restaurant and food and commercial workers and unions in a wide variety of labor, employment, constitutional, and class-action cases. Winnie was previously a trial attorney for the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division where she litigated housing and public accommodation discrimination cases. She also served on detail as a Special Assistant United States Attorney in the Sex Offense and Domestic Violence Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, DC, and was an extern for the Honorable Gladys Kessler in the US District Court for the District of Columbia. Winnie has worked as a community organizer for labor and civil rights groups. She is a graduate of Yale College and the University of Michigan Law School where she was a member of the Michigan Law Review.

She has won commendations and awards for her work from numerous organizations including the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the University of Michigan Law School.

“I was treated unfairly many times, and that anger helped me conquer my fears. As a result, I joined the organizing efforts and learned that with unity comes protection for all of us,” explained Chiu Ping Tam, a former server at Kome Japanese Seafood Buffet in Daly City, California.

In 2020, Chiu and their co-workers won back $2.6 million in stolen wages, joining a growing movement of Bay Area immigrant workers organizing for their rights and dignity on the job. Kome workers have since inspired others to stand up for a fair and equitable restaurant industry. In August, 22 servers, busers, cooks, and other kitchen staff at Z & Y, a San Francisco Chinatown restaurant on the Michelin Bib Gourmand list, won a settlement of $1.61 million for stolen wages, tips, penalties, and interest.

“I wanted to make sure that everybody stuck together and knew what’s going on. Besides the money, we’re sending the message to other immigrant workers that you can stand up for yourselves,” John Wang told NBC News recently.

Over the past four years, with support from Asian Law Caucus attorneys and advocates and our partners like Chinese Progressive Association and Trabajadores Unidos, immigrant workers throughout the Bay Area have won back over $10.5 million in stolen wages and mobilized thousands of workers and community members for good jobs and fair pay.

Through their resolve and organizing power, restaurant workers, like those in the video above, are pushing back against troubling, long-standing practices in an industry known for undercutting people -- and holding employers accountable to a new normal that respects people’s rights and protects the health and safety of both workers and customers.

Their leadership is critically needed for an equitable economic recovery. As the Economic Policy Institute has documented, over 590,000 California workers lose at least $2 billion annually to minimum wage violations, and restaurant workers nationwide continue to cite low wages as one of their top reasons for not staying in the industry.

These challenges were also documented in our report with the Labor Occupational Health Program at the University of California at Berkeley, which included a survey of over 600 workers who made take out meals, provided home health care, or cleaned schools, homes, and hospitals during the pandemic. More than half of the survey respondents reported being paid less than the minimum wage, more than two-thirds of those paid below minimum wage received no information on what to do if sick or exposed to COVID-19, and many were left to enforce health and safety guidelines on their own, facing retaliation or harassment for raising concerns.

At Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus, we’re committed to addressing the systemic problems that have created these horrific working conditions and to joining with workers to build a new standard for good jobs and fair pay.

With that focus, we help immigrant workers, many of whom are limited English speakers, file individual claims, fight retaliation, testify at hearings, and organize with their co-workers to assert their rights. Workers’ organizing efforts are also helping the California Labor Commissioner’s Bureau of Field Enforcement better understand and investigate the realities of wage and hour violations in different industries. When public agencies are able to directly connect with workers, they are able to better see and take action against systemic injustices and violations.