In this July 30, 2014 file photo, shoppers enter the Chinatown Supermarket after a ribbon-cutting ceremony in South Salt Lake. The Chinatown Supermarket was sued this week by the U.S. Department of Labor after owners allegedly interfered with the department’s investigation into the supermarket’s pay practices. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)
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SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Department of Labor has accused a South Salt Lake supermarket of hindering the department’s investigation into the store’s pay practices.
A lawsuit filed Monday in Utah’s federal court says that Chinatown Supermarket acted illegally when the store allegedly told employees in March not to cooperate with investigators with the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, along with other alleged actions.
Liesel Stevens, a Salt Lake City attorney representing Chinatown Supermarket, declined to comment Friday on the pending litigation. Stevens said in an email that “Chinatown Supermarket is complying and cooperating with the Department of Labor’s ongoing investigation.”
On March 3, the Labor Department began an investigation into the supermarket’s pay practices, the lawsuit says. Investigators emailed a building manager the same day, with labor officials attaching a letter that specified which documents the supermarket was expected to make available to officials.
Sometime in the days following, the department alleges that the supermarket held a meeting with employees and told them to tell investigators that no employees work 40 hours a week, according to the lawsuit. The supermarket also had employees sign a document called a “Non-competition, Non-Solicitation and Confidentiality Agreement,” which would restrict workers from disclosing information or working for competitors if they should leave the Chinatown Supermarket, the lawsuit states.
An investigator later visited the supermarket on March 8, the lawsuit states, and “found that many of (the supermarket’s) employees appeared anxious and reluctant to speak with him.” The investigator took a photo of a timeclock and timecards the same day, and the lawsuit alleges that a supermarket representative said the next day that the store didn’t use timecards.
Days later, multiple Labor Department investigators began interviewing employees, who again appeared anxious and reluctant to talk, the lawsuit says. Managers were allegedly lingering nearby, within earshot of the interviews.
Investigators later asked the building’s manager for timecards or timekeeping records, and the manager allegedly told them that he did not have them, as the owner kept the timecard records and had been out of the country for six months. Labor officials also allege that the supermarket removed Spanish-speaking employees from the work schedule on days when the investigators were believed to be at the supermarket.
Based on talks with confidential informants, the Labor Department believes Chinatown Supermarket “is taking measures to prevent its employees from communicating honestly with its investigators,” the lawsuit says. The department pointed to the monitoring of interviews, shifting staffing and requiring staff to sign the “Non-competition, Non-Solicitation and Confidentiality Agreement” documents as reasons for the lawsuit. Investigators also allege that the timesheets the supermarket did produce are “of dubious accuracy and serve only to obstruct the (Labor Department’s) investigation.”
In the lawsuit, federal officials are seeking an injunction to force the supermarket to comply with the investigation and provide any documentation necessary to the probe consistent to the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Labor Department also wants to read a statement in English, Spanish and Mandarin to the supermarket’s employees about their rights as workers and how they can speak to investigators without fear of retaliation.
As of Friday, the supermarket had yet to file a formal response in court. The case does not yet have court dates set.
Jacob Scholl joined KSL.com as a reporter in 2021. He covers northern Utah communities, federal courts and technology.