By Leslie Albrecht
UPPER WEST SIDE — Saigon Grill — the Vietnamese restaurant whose workers won a $4.6 million jury settlement after its owners violated labor laws — is under fire again from workers who say they're being treated unfairly by the restaurant's new owners.
Workers have been picketing the restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue and West 90th Street for about two weeks, calling for a boycott of Saigon Grill, which also has a Greenwich Village location that's under different ownership.
On Sunday, about 20 picketers stood outside the eatery wearing signs with slogans such as "Saigon Grill Stop Age Discrimination and Ensure Equal Employment" and shouting, "Boycott Saigon Grill."
A manager at the restaurant said he couldn't comment because the restaurant's new owners have taken legal action against the picketers. He referred comment to an attorney who was not available for comment Monday.
The restaurant's previous owners had to sell both Saigon Grill locations to pay for the multi-million dollar court settlement awarded in the wake of numerous labor law violations.
New owner Bei Lin started operating the Upper West Side location in October, after pledging to treat workers fairly, said Josephine Lee, a spokeswoman with anti-sweatshop group Justice Will Be Served.
But Lee says that promise was broken almost immediately.
The new owner promised to hire workers referred by the employee advocacy group Chinese Staff and Workers' Association, but Lin refused to hire some workers who were over 40, saying they were too old, Lee said.
When seven waiters and three busboys challenged Lin, telling him that age discrimination is illegal, they were fired, Lee said. The fired employees were all associated with the 318 Restaurant Workers Union, Lee said.
Lee said the new owner also retaliated against deliverymen who filed paperwork to form a union by cutting their hours and overstaffing the department, which means employees get less work and fewer tips.
"Basically he's trying to undermine a lot of the improvements that we made," Lee said. "Wages had gone up, hours had gotten shorter, people's lives had gotten better, but now he wants to get rid of anyone who's organizing for better conditions."
Justice Will Be Served is calling for a boycott of Saigon Grill until the new owner rehires the workers who were fired. Lee said the group plans to take legal action against the new owners, including filing a complaint with federal labor officials.
The picket line will bring back memories for Upper West Siders, who watched two years ago as workers mounted a long struggle to expose unfair labor practices at the restaurant.
They ultimately prevailed when a federal judge ruled in 2008 that Saigon Grill's previous owners, Simon and Michelle Nget, had violated overtime and minimum wage laws by paying deliverymen less than $2 an hour, the New York Times reported.
The 36 Chinese immigrant deliverymen who sued the restaurant were awarded a $4.6 million settlement in the case.
Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal said the case is still fresh in the minds of Upper West Siders, who rallied around the workers when they fought the restaurant's previous owners.
Rosenthal said people still ask her whether it's OK to eat at the restaurant, after some of them stopped dining there in solidarity with the employees.
Rosenthal, who supported the workers who spoke out against the old owners, said she's meeting this week with Saigon Grill's new owners about the latest allegations.
"After seeing what happened with the previous owner, anyone who attempts to replicate his actions is out of their mind," Rosenthal said.
"Why would somebody want to do that kind of thing again? It's not like the West Side closed its eyes. We're very vigilant here. If all these allegations are an (accurate) description of the new owner's actions, I'm sure the West Side will jump right back into action."
One of the picketers, Jerry Weng, said he was one of the workers who was fired after he spoke up on behalf of older employees.
Weng said the restaurant's new owners had failed to make good on the promise to treat workers well.
"It's really a shame," Weng said. "The community supported him, but he broke his promise. He betrayed the community."