PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Wang Lin said he worked 66 hours per week at the now-shuttered Ayame Hibachi in Providence, but he was never paid overtime and the owners failed to pay him for the final two months of his employment.
While working, Lin said he received two, five-minute meals per day, and even that time could be cut short if a customer came in during those times. The Providence chef is now suing the owner for thousands of dollars, arguing the restaurant violated state and federal labor laws.
“It is completely unfair,” Lin’s attorney, Tiffany Troy, told Target 12. “That is money for their family, that’s money for their children, that is money they are going to put in for their first home.”
James Musgrave, an attorney for the business and owner, pushed back on Lin’s claims and he’s fighting the lawsuit in Rhode Island U.S. District Court.
“My clients categorically deny Mr. Lin’s allegation that he was not paid for two months and look forward to presenting their defense in court,” he said.
The issue of unpaid wages, however, is an ongoing challenge for workers across Rhode Island.
A Target 12 review of data compiled by both the U.S. Department of Labor and the R.I. Department of Labor and Training shows regulatory action has been taken on behalf of hundreds of workers who were failed to be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
On the federal level, the U.S. Wage and Hour Division estimates it took action against 41 Rhode Island employers, resulting in the recovery of more than $300,000 in back wages for more than 200 workers during 2022.
With the state, DLT estimates it recovered about $1.6 million of unpaid wages unlawfully withheld from more than 500 employees from 2020 through 2022. The state estimates it has about an 80% success rate in helping workers recover unpaid wages.
“It’s absolutely devastating,” DLT Director Matt Weldon told Target 12. “It can make people face situations that they would never like to be up against. And can lead to things like homelessness, health issues and other things, so we need to really be mindful of that.”
Weldon’s agency oversees the state’s effort to get workers paid what they’re owed. And while he said the process has improved during his 12-year tenure at DLT, the agency has the complicated job of acting like an administrative court where investigators look into each case and then present the evidence to colleagues who act as judges and make a ruling one way or another.
And it’s not always the employer who has made a mistake or is trying to rip off its employees. About half of the 400 unpaid wages complaints filed with DLT each year are dismissed. Often it’s because paperwork has been filed incorrectly or investigators discover the complainant doesn’t have their facts right.
“I don’t know what their motivation was, but oftentimes people will say ‘I wasn’t paid,’ and there’s clearly a payroll record that they were,” Weldon said.
In the event a business is unwilling or unable to pay back wages, the process becomes somewhat convoluted for the employer. First, DLT will pass along collection efforts to the R.I. Department of Administration, which currently estimates about 29 employers owe a combined $128,000 in back wages and fees that it’s still trying to collect.
In the event that doesn’t work and the dispute can’t be resolved, R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office has the authority to step in and go after bad actors — but that sometimes can take months or years.
The attorney general estimated there have been over a dozen cases his office has brought against employers since he took office in 2019, saying it’s important to go after any money that’s been stolen from employees.
“I work on this issue personally because I feel very strongly about it,” Neronha said.
But both Weldon and Neronha argue the penalties associated with wage theft aren’t strong enough in Rhode Island, and the attorney general has tried multiple times to elevate the charge from a misdemeanor to a felony.
Neronha has pushed for legislation each year since he’s been in office, but it’s always failed to pass. The attorney general said he plans to do the same this year and Weldon said his agency would support the effort.
“In Rhode Island if I steal $10,000 of your wages, it’s always a misdemeanor,” Neronha said. “If I steal your refrigerator and it’s over $1,000 – it’s a felony. Think about that for a minute.”
- For employees seeking to file a complaint with the R.I. Department of Labor and Training, a form can be found by clicking here.
- Complaints can be submitted to the DLT via mail or fax. They can also be dropped off in person at 1511 Pontiac Ave., Cranston RI 02920.
Eli Sherman (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.
Sarah Guernelli (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the consumer investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.