FLUSHING — The Queens outpost of China's famed Shaolin Temple owes its kung fu instructors a fistful of dollars in back wages, state investigators say — but the martial arts group's grandmaster wants to kick the charges to the curb.
The State Department of Labor found Grandmaster Guolin Shi and the Flushing-based Society of Shaolin Temple guilty of underpaying two live-in instructors, Chao Gong Sun and Chao Hai Lan, and ordered them to pay more than $72,000 in back wages and $54,000 in civil penalties.
But the temple challenged that decision last month in a legal filing, saying its instructors were religious members of the Shaolin Temple practicing Buddhism and were not employees subject to the state's minimum wage laws.
"They are disciples of the senior monks like Guolin Shi who use their time to practice Zen Buddhism," the filings says.
"The Shaolin Temple is a sanctuary according to the traditions of Zen Buddhism. Those invited to live in the temple may provide some work or service for a few hours a day but, most of the time, these individuals review and recite Buddhist literature, practice Shaolin Kung Fu or engage in meditation."
Shi became a monk after studying for years at the original Shaolin Temple in the Henan province of China. The monastery, where monks practice Buddhism and kung fu, has been mythologized in pop culture through martial arts flicks and the songs of the Staten Island-based rap group Wu-Tang Clan.
Shi was encouraged by the headmaster of the Shaolin Temple in China to open a U.S. branch because he thought New Yorkers "would benefit from the practice of kung fu because it would enable them to become more understanding of themselves and experience enhanced tranquility," the filing says.
After he opened the U.S. branch, the Shaolin Temple Overseas, in Flushing in 1995, Shi invited monks and kung fu masters from the Chinese monastery to stay at the Queens location for periods of time to teach martial arts classes and in return receive room, board and a monthly stipend of $600 to $800.
He later launched a kung fu studio in Nolita.
The wage dispute began in 2007, when the state Department of Labor received an anonymous letter "alleging the existence of certain unlawful employment practices at the Shaolin Temple," the court filing says.
Jonathan Gould, a lawyer for Shi and the Shaolin Society, told DNAinfo New York the anonymous letter followed the 2007 suicide of a monk connected to the temple.
"There were rumors going around that he was abused by the temple," Gould said. "The anger that grew out of that event led to this ill-considered Department of Labor Investigation."
In 2010 the DOL determined that the Queens temple owed 11 kung fu instructors — who all came from China — nearly $777,000 in back wages, civil penalties and damages.
Shi and the Shaolin Society later appealed DOL's determination to the state Industrial Board of Appeals, arguing that the instructors were religious members exempt from the state's labor laws and had only been in the United States on a cultural exchange.
In an Aug. 7, 2014 decision, the Industrial Board of Appeals ruled that the Shaolin Society didn't owe back wages to five of the instructors because they were found to be monks — and therefore religious members.
The board said that four other instructors couldn't collect back wages as well because the DOL could not provide a rational basis for calculating the amount of hours they worked.
The board's decision upheld the $72,000 in back wages and $54,000 in penalties were owed to instructors Sun and Lan.
But Shi and Shaolin's Oct. 8 filing says that Sun and Lan were also disciples of the temple and should also be excluded from wage laws.
"It was an arbitrary conclusion that they weren’t considered monks or members of the religious organization," Gould said.
The filing also says that if a judge won't throw out the wage claims, then the monetary amount should at least be lowered because Lan only worked for the Shaolin Society for a year — not for five years, as the DOL investigation determined.
Gould said the DOL investigation was "a big waste of time" because Sun and Lan didn't make the wage claims and have stated they don't want the money. However, New York law allows the DOL to make claims for individuals. If the workers don't take the money, the state can claim it.
Neither Sun nor Lan could be reached for comment.