Hot and Soured
Slave wages and unsafe housing — exposing the unsavory side of cheap Chinese in Vermont
Worker at Orchid Chinese Buffet in South Burlington
A lanky old Chinese man sits cross-legged on a porch sipping soup from a bowl, his elbow and wrist folded on one knee like an origami bird. The English words on his T-shirt, which he cannot read, say, “Engineering a brighter future.”
Earlier generations who occupied this once-stately, three-story Victorian in Essex Junction probably sat in this very same spot, listening to the chirping of crickets on hot summer nights. Today, the porch is littered with discarded bed frames, hanging underwear, a cardboard box of warped record albums and a sun-bleached disconnect notice from Green Mountain Power. A different chirping — not from any insect — comes from inside the house. It’s the sound smoke detectors make before their batteries die.
The front door of the house is always unlocked; evidently, the lock has been broken for months. A sign, in English, directs FedEx to make its deliveries in the rear. Another, in handwritten Chinese, offers a clue as to who lives here, and why: It translates, “Employees, pay attention! Turn light out at 11. Please don’t scream, talk loud or make noise because it will disturb the neighbors.” The notice is signed, “Orchid Restaurant.”
Seven Days first visited this boarding house at 2 Park Terrace — behind Ming’s of Essex — in mid-March at the invitation of one of its previous residents. Yuki, a 25-year-old woman who has since left the state, was employed at the Orchid Restaurant in South Burlington, one of six Chinese restaurants in Chittenden County owned by Sheun Lai Poon and his younger brother, Yun Poon. Their holdings include East Orchid in Williston, Ming’s of Essex, Ming’s of Colchester, Ming’s of Burlington, and Fortune Cookie in the University Mall in South Burlington. Yuki (who asked that her last name not be used) contacted Seven Days to complain that she was being underpaid and expected to live in an overcrowded and unsanitary apartment.
Follow-up visits to the boarding house offered a disquieting glimpse into how its residents, all of them Chinese, live. They either don’t understand or have learned to ignore the beeping smoke detectors — a frightening prospect, considering how many people sleep here each night, and under what conditions.
Inside the front door, numerous pairs of shoes — men’s and women’s — are parked at the foot of a staircase beneath some hanging laundry. The carpet is threadbare. What was once a first-floor living room has been pressed into service as an extra bedroom. On one bunk bed, a youngish Chinese man wakes from an afternoon nap, mumbles something in Mandarin and waves away his visitors. Like the man on the front porch, he doesn’t speak English and is reluctant to talk to strangers, even one with a Chinese-language interpreter in tow.
Upstairs, four small bedrooms make up a cramped warren of bunk beds — five or six to a room — which are cluttered with food, clothing and other personal belongings. A 10-gallon “Kikkoman” bucket sits atop one bunk to catch water that leaks through the ceiling. According to one resident of the room, the dripping persisted for two weeks in March, forcing two women to share one small cot. The tenant claims her landlord ignored repeated requests to fix the problem.
Through a closed bedroom door, the interpreter tries, unsuccessfully, to converse with a couple in Chinese. But the man and woman speak an unfamiliar Tibetan dialect, and they refuse to even unlock their door.
There are two bathrooms in the house; only one has a door. The other, at the back of a mildewed and sparsely furnished kitchen downstairs, has a window curtain strung across it for privacy. It’s the only curtain in the house. Most of the windows are either bare or covered with old, yellowed Chinese newspapers.
Back out on the front porch, the “old” man — actually, he’s only “about 40,” he says — warily answers questions in his native language. Originally from Tai Shan in southern China, he’s been in the United States “for a long time,” but in Vermont just four months. Like the 20 or so other people with whom he shares this “boarding house,” he says he works at several of the Asian eateries run by the Poon brothers.
Town and village records confirm that 2 Park Terrace, and another residence at 9-11 Park Street, are both owned by a company that belongs to Lai Poon, who is also listed as the president of Ming’s Incorporated.
In subsequent interviews, which were conducted in English or with a certified Chinese-language interpreter present, other residents of the house told stories similar to the old man’s. They all spoke of working exceptionally long hours — 12 hours per day, six days per week — at minimum or even below-legal wages. Many said they work only for tips, with a percentage of their earnings skimmed by the management. Though their employer provides free room and board, they claim to get no breaks, sick days, health insurance or other benefits. Moreover, several complained that if a worker quits or gets fired, he or she may be evicted from the house, sometimes the very same day.
Meet the newest generation of Vermont wage slaves, the Chinese restaurant workers who bus tables, refill pots of hot tea, and stand for hours on end over flaming woks cooking up General Tso — a “traditional” Chinese chicken dish named after a ruthless soldier from the Qing dynasty. Poorly educated and largely unable to speak English, many are entirely dependent upon their employer for food, housing, transportation and other basic necessities. Presumably, they’re also largely ignorant of state and federal minimum-wage laws, fair housing standards and building safety codes, which leaves them vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and dangerous living conditions.
Vermont’s Mexican dairy workers aren’t the only immigrant group laboring in cultural isolation. These restaurant employees, whose families and friends often still live in New York’s Chinatown or in China, appear to know little, if anything, about the town or state in which they work and live. Many say they’ve been in Vermont a very short time — six months or less. And, according to one expert who’s extensively studied the U.S. Chinese restaurant industry, plenty will leave shortly after arriving.
But still other workers will stay here for years, enduring harsh conditions in order to support their families back in China, or perhaps even to pay off a human smuggling debt. This highly organized employment network is kept afloat by poor Chinese villagers pursuing the American dream. Asked about his current situation, the Chinese man on the porch stares blankly. In a monotone voice, he mutters, “It doesn’t really matter. It’s work.”
Lunchtime is busy at the East Orchid Chinese buffet in Williston. On a recent weekday afternoon four men in crew cuts, black boots and combat fatigues — Vermont National Guardsmen, presumably — make their way through the buffet line, scooping up dollops of lo mein, spare ribs and pork fried rice. A heavyset older couple bellies up to the bar for seconds, or thirds, of beef with broccoli, General Tso’s chicken and, incongruously, meatballs and potatoes in butter sauce.
As the guardsmen return to their table, a Chinese waiter in his twenties brings them beverages. Like the other waiters scurrying about, he’s polite and deferential, but that probably won’t do much to improve his tip. Buffet customers can be justifiably tight-fisted with gratuities for waitstaff that do little more than freshen their drinks and bring the fortune cookies and check at the end of the meal.
“Andy” speaks English fairly well but seems afraid of being seen with a reporter. He’s only been in Vermont two or three months, he says, and isn’t happy with the pay or the housing arrangements. He lives in the boarding house at 2 Park Terrace in Essex Junction, and confirms that about 20 other workers do, too, though that number can change from week to week.
How does Andy get paid? He looks around to ensure no one is listening. “No check, only tips,” he whispers. The question is repeated to ensure he understood it. He does. Andy claims he gets paid cash each night, but his boss gets 1.5 percent of the total take. He doesn’t understand why.
Asked if he could be interviewed more extensively during his break, he says he doesn’t get one. After work, then? Andy shakes his head. He’s been there since 10 a.m. and won’t get home until 10:30 or 11 p.m. “Too late,” he says. A Seven Days observer confirmed those hours by following the passenger van that ferries the workers between the boarding house and the restaurant.
On another afternoon at East Orchid, a Chinese interpreter strikes up a conversation with a baby-faced Asian woman who’s bussing tables. She stands several feet away from us, as though trying to avoid contagion. She says she’s one of five girls living in the boarding house with about 15 men. Asked about her pay, she says, “No wages, tips.”
The girl, who’s 19, has been in Vermont for about two months, but insists she’s in the country legally. Does she like Vermont? She smiles and says in Chinese, “I’m always here in the restaurant. I never get to go anywhere. How would I know if I like it?”
Another waiter agrees to be interviewed through an interpreter, though his English is actually better than Andy’s. “Lee” has been in the United States since he was a teen — he’s now in his thirties — and has family in New York State, whom he visits several times each month. Lee won’t say what he gets paid — he tells the interpreter he doesn’t want trouble from his boss. But after an extended back-and-forth in Cantonese, the interpreter summarizes the conversation: “He gets a pay stub, but it’s blank. He just makes tips.”
Lee, too, lives in the Essex Junction flophouse. “It’s not a home, just a place for us to sleep,” he says in English. “If boss want to be asshole, they can ask you to leave next day. It’s a shit job. Nobody happy.”
It must be emphasized that Seven Days could not confirm the veracity of these employees’ allegations, or their immigration status. All claimed to be in the country legally. According to the Vermont Department of Labor, no wage claim or performance violation has ever been filed against Yun Poon, Sheun Lai Poon, Ming’s Incorporated or any of the six restaurants named above.
Reached by phone at East Orchid, Yun Poon denied that employees of the restaurant work only for tips. Asked if they’re paid minimum wages, with the proper deductions for taxes, unemployment and social security, he said, “Of course.” Why would his workers say otherwise? “I don’t know,” he said.
It is possible that these foreign-born workers, who speak little or no English and have very little schooling, don’t understand how they get paid or how much their employer deducts from their earnings for taxes, meals and housing. Nevertheless, all the workers were interviewed separately, at different times and places, and always out of earshot of one another.
Kelly Connelley is the performance and compliance unit chief with the Vermont Department of Labor. She explains that under state law, tipped employees must earn on average at least $7.53 per hour or their employer must make up the difference. An employer can deduct no more than $19.85 per week for housing, and no more than $68.57 per week for room and board. Moreover, employees must get an itemized list of those deductions each pay period, regardless of whether they’re paid by check or in cash. None of these workers mentioned such an itemized list or pay stub.
The penalty for violating these laws can be steep, Connelley adds. An employer found guilty of paying employees less than minimum wage can be hit with a $100 fine per employee for every day that employee was underpaid. Additional fines can also be levied for improper recordkeeping.
Typically, though, the state only investigates a business if an employee files a complaint, and Connelley is one of just two people in Vermont who conducts those investigations. Obviously, if workers don’t speak English well and/or don’t know the law, it’s highly unlikely they would go through official channels to blow the whistle — and they may be afraid to do so if they’re in the country illegally.
They needn’t be apprehensive, though, according to Connelley. Her job description doesn’t include checking green cards or verifying citizenship papers. “I don’t ask questions about their immigration status,” she says. “That doesn’t come into play, as far as I’m concerned.” A growing number of lawsuits against employers who ignore labor laws suggests foreign-born workers across the country — and their attorneys and activists — are starting to get that message.
In Vermont, Connelley says that if she discovers a wage and performance violation has occurred, she’ll go back and “reconstruct” those hours and pay those employees, wherever they now live. “I track ’em down,” she says. “Last year, I paid wages to Romania.”
If the Chinese workers in Essex Junction have escaped the attention of state and local officials, their living quarters have not. Town and village officials have known for years about Poon’s two apartment houses: the “boarding house” at 2 Park Terrace; and the other, at 9-11 Park Street, which is zoned for commercial, not residential, use. Both houses are practically in sight of village offices. In fact, Town Health Officer Jerry Firkey has records showing that “unsanitary conditions” and other housing code violations were first documented at 2 Park Terrace in 1998. Four years ago, Firkey asked the owners to tear down a decrepit barn on the property. It’s still there today.
On October 28, 2005, a fire-prevention inspection uncovered “numerous items identified that are a violation of the Vermont Fire Protection and Building Code.” Records indicate that 2 Park Terrace was cited repeatedly for violations that included inadequate smoke detectors, no carbon monoxide detectors or functional fire extinguishers, ungrounded electrical outlets in the kitchen and bathrooms, doors that weren’t properly fire rated, windows that couldn’t be used for egress or rescue, peeling lead paint and padlocked bedroom doors that could prevent an escape.
Less serious, nuisance violations have also been documented over the years, including hazardous debris on the porch and dead fish in the yard. Vermont’s then-Department of Labor and Industry even cited the property once for building code violations and temporarily shut it down. Although town records also indicate that the house has since been renovated, many of those conditions were observed in the last few weeks.
That hasn’t stopped landlord Lai Poon, who owns the buildings through Park Street Holding Company, from seeking to develop his properties. On April 5, his company filed an application with the Essex Junction Planning Commission to build a $4.5 million, 91-room LaQuinta Hotel on the site currently occupied by Ming’s of Essex, 9-11 Park Street, 2 Park Terrace and two other adjacent lots.
In his April 5 staff notes on the application, Village Development Director Jeff Arango noted, “A major concern for the public health, safety and welfare is the lack of proper maintenance of the properties at 9-11 Park Street and 2 Park Terrace. Hazardous garbage and debris were evident on a recent walk through the property . . . The applicant shall respond to this issue by stating how the proposed hotel will be managed and maintained properly when the current property has not been.”
Arango also noted that he’s aware the old camping supply building at 9-11 Park Street is being used as a residence, a zoning violation. Yet despite a long track record of violations, Arango told the planning commission, “There are no violations pending at this time . . .”
When Seven Days spoke to Lai Poon at his Fortune Cookie restaurant in the mall, he admitted he owns the boarding houses in Essex Junction, but refused to discuss the LaQuinta Hotel deal — or any other aspects of his family’s business.
“Clearly, there’s a history of neglect, to some degree, with the properties,” Arango later told Seven Days. “If this [deal] falls apart, they can expect we’ll be investigating it for further violations.” Arango seemed unaware that both properties were being used to house restaurant employees. When asked if he knows who lives there, he said, “I believe they just rent it to people.” If a fire were to break out in the boarding house — like the one several weeks ago that gutted a two-story building two blocks away— that “history of neglect” could end in tragedy.
Meanwhile, an air of sadness and gloom pervades the place. On a bedroom wall in the Park Terrace boarding house, some past or present resident has scrawled two poems in Chinese on a sheet of loose-leaf paper. One of them translates:
“Together in the wind and rain behind the cold window,
We are like families overseas,
A person runs a 10,000-mile journey,
We express our feelings together in this faraway land.”
Guest is author of the book God in Chinatown: Religion and Survival in New York’s Evolving Immigrant Community. He’s done extensive research in both China and New York City on the U.S. Chinese restaurant industry. Whether or not the Essex Junction workers are here legally, he suspects that most of them came to Vermont through Chinatown.
“People on the street in the towns and villages [of China] all know somebody who’s been here who’s told them a very positive story about how it was hard for four or five years,” Guest says, “but they were able to pay off their fees and now they’re making enough money to build a house for the family in the village or send the kids to school.”
Chinatown, he says, is the East Coast hub that feeds workers to the more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants throughout the United States. There, some 30 or so employment agencies offer jobs to new arrivals hungry for work. Inside each one is a large whiteboard that lists available jobs — chefs, chef’s helpers, receptionists, busboys, waiters — as well as the pay and telephone area code of the restaurant. If a worker finds a suitable match, an interview is conducted there over the phone, for a fee of about $25 to $30. Fleets of vans leave directly from lower Manhattan, Guest explains, carrying workers as far south as Florida, as far west as Chicago, and as far north as Vermont.
“Most of the people I’ve talked to have no idea where they’ve been, even after they’ve been there for months,” Guest says. “They may know the area code or the state they were in but not the city . . . I think most of them are pretty unprepared, and that’s what leaves them so vulnerable.”
Typical pay for these jobs ranges from $1500 to $2500 per month, depending upon the work, Guest notes. Invariably, the hours are long — 12 to 14 hours per day, six days per week — and it’s not uncommon for workers to keep those jobs for two months or less before getting burned out.
The living conditions that Vermont’s Chinese workers describe sound classic, Guest says, and don’t vary much from state to state. It’s common for restaurant owners to provide their employees’ housing, which can be deplorable. Nevertheless, many suffer through such conditions for years to pay off smuggling debts or to raise enough money to bring fellow family members here.
“It’s its own ethnic economy,” he says. “Because of the language issues and their lack of familiarity with the rest of American society, these people don’t really have an ability to break out of it.”
Many don’t ever expect to, as one Chinese waiter in South Burlington remarked. “We no have dreams,” he says in broken English. “Why should we? We’re so low. We know what we are.”
Staff writer Mike Ives contributed to the reporting of this story.