02/14/2013 08:21 pm ET

Dick Lee Pastry, San Francisco Restaurant, Accused Of Wage Theft, Ordered To Pay $525,000

A San Francisco restaurant was ordered to pay sizeable back wages and penalties after allegedly forcing employees to work up to 80 hours per week for under $4 per hour -- less than half of the city's minimum wage.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Dick Lee Pastry, a Chinatown dim sum and buffet restaurant, paid $525,000 in the settlement last week, the single largest payment the city has received in its ongoing effort to undermine wage theft.

Wage theft, the illegal withholding of wages or benefits, is widespread in the United States, particularly in urban centers with a high immigrant population. The problem has been significant in San Francisco, especially in the Chinatown neighborhood.

The Chronicle reported on the conditions at Dick Lee Pastry:

One employee, who asked to remain anonymous because she feared being "blacklisted" and unable to work at another business in Chinatown, said she knew nothing about minimum wage or overtime laws when she got the job in 2005, shortly after immigrating from the Taishan region in southeast China.

"I did everything; whatever the boss asked me to do," the woman said through a Cantonese interpreter. City officials say she is owed the most from the settlement -- $89,000 from about five years of back wages.

A 2008 study based on surveys of more than 4,000 low-wage workers across the country found that 68 percent of those surveyed had experienced a wage-law violation in the previous work week.

"We were all surprised by the high prevalence rate," said Ruth Milkman, one of the study's authors, to the New York Times.

In 2011, Governor Jerry Brown passed the Wage Theft Protection Act in an effort to curb the illegal practice in California.

The hit against Dick Lee Pastry is the latest in a string of crackdowns on unfair employer practices in San Francisco.

"We want to make sure that we're sending a message that we're serious about fighting wage theft and policing unfair competition," said City Attorney Dennis Herrera to the Chronicle. "No worker in San Francisco should be forced to work for less than minimum wage."

Local pizza chain Patxi's recently agreed to pay $320,000 after the City Attorney's office found the company had misused funds earmarked for employee healthcare. Earlier in the year, GMG Janitorial was forced to pay $1.3 million for similar violations.