ESSEX JUNCTION — Ming’s at Essex Chinese Restaurant near Five Corners now sits dark and lifeless, with a commercial “FOR SALE” sign posted at the curb. Next door, a rundown commercial building, where kitchen help from the neighboring eatery once lived — in violation of local zoning ordinances — is also vacant and on the market. Behind Ming’s, the big, white Victorian at 2 Park Terrace is still occupied. However, village officials say it’s no longer the illegal boardinghouse it was earlier this year, when Seven Days discovered as many as two dozen foreign-born workers living there in overcrowded, unsanitary and dangerous conditions.
In May and June, Seven Days ran a pair of stories (5.30.07 and 6.6.07) on the plight of those workers, all of whom were employed at five Burlington-area Chinese eateries. Most appeared to be poorly educated, underpaid and largely unable to speak English, making them almost entirely dependent upon their employers for food, housing, transportation and other basic necessities. Those workers interviewed via a translator seemed woefully ignorant of state and federal wage laws, fair housing standards and building safety codes, which left them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
After those stories ran, the Vermont Department of Labor (DOL) immediately opened an investigation into the business practices of owners Lai and Yun Poon, whose other establishments included the East Orchid Restaurant in Williston, the Orchid Buffet in South Burlington, Ming’s of Colchester, Ming’s of Burlington and Fortune Cookie in South Burlington’s University Mall. According to Kelly Connelley, the DOL’s performance and compliance unit chief, the state has been reviewing two years of tax and payroll records for those restaurants. Six months later, the investigation is ongoing, due to “at least 50 employees” who may have been affected, including some who have already left the state.
Thanks in large part to Seven Days readers’ concern and outrage over the story — one in Essex Junction even got the articles translated into Chinese and left copies at the boardinghouse — the Vermont Division of Fire Safety also got on the case.
A week after the second article appeared, two assistant fire marshals inspected the property and cited its owners with more than 20 violations, including inoperable smoke and carbon dioxide detectors, uncharged fire extinguishers, blocked fire exits, dangerous handrails and hazardous extension cords and electrical outlets, including one that showed signs of a previous electrical fire. The state also directed the property owners to install a sprinkler system in the building, and ordered a dilapidated barn on the premises torn down because it posed a public-safety hazard.
The Village of Essex Junction’s development director also noted the municipality is now considering the adoption of local building codes similar to those in Burlington and Winooski. Crediting the Seven Days story, Jeff Arango believes stricter regs would enhance the village’s ability to crack down on other unsafe residences in the community.
Plans for a La Quinta Hotel proposed by Lai Poon’s Park Street Holding Company for downtown Essex Junction appear to have fallen apart, according to Arango. (Attorneys for the Poon brothers couldn’t be reached for comment.)
And the Chinese workers themselves? The woman who first brought this situation to the attention of Seven Days has since moved back to New York City. Reached by phone last week, she says she last spoke to some of her former co-workers in August, and they reported “things were better a bit” at the restaurant. But she also remarked that she and others were afraid to file complaints with the state, out of fear of being pursued for back taxes.
The DOL’s Connelley emphasized that workers have nothing to fear from her; her enforcement targets employers, not employees. That said, Connelley pointed out that since Vermont is an “at-will” employment state — meaning employees can be fired for any reason, provided it’s not for discriminatory reasons such as race, religion or ethnicity — workers who file wage grievances risk dismissal. To date, Vermont offers no protection for whistleblowers who report wage or payroll violations.