Workers Are Suing Happy Lamb Hot Pot, Alleging Wage Theft and Other Violations

by Terrence B. Doyle 

On October 30, 2018, nine current and former employees of Happy Lamb Hot Pot in Cambridge filed a complaint with the United States District Court of Massachusetts alleging restaurant management committed a number of labor law violations, including failing to pay overtime wages, pocketing and improperly distributing workers’ tips, and refusing to let workers use accrued sick time.

The complaint — which names Hot Pot Boston 1 LLC, Michael Puileung Luk, Kong Wai “William” Cheung, Bin “Eason” Zhang, and Jinling “Elaine” Huang as defendants — also alleges that Happy Lamb Hot Pot management failed to pay some tipped workers any base pay and paid other tipped workers a sub-minimum wage despite failing to meet legal requirements (i.e. tip credit requirements) put in place to prohibit such behavior on the part of operators.

According to the complaint, which Eater Boston obtained, management at Happy Lamb Hot Pot retaliated against some workers, including firing one, for speaking up against the various violations and abuses. 

The nine current and former employees are asking for $806,000 in back wages and damages.

Employees’ tips were stolen, former employee Sean Zheng told Eater Boston through a translator, a claim echoed in the complaint, which states that “defendants have stolen tips by improperly distributing funds from the tip pool to ineligible staff, including management and kitchen workers.” 

“And the way our manager [Bin “Eason” Zhang] treated us workers was very rude,” said Zheng. “Usually, he wouldn’t help with anything. He’d spend most of the time in his office and sometimes make a tour through the restaurant. But at the end of the shift he’d take a share of our tips as if he were a full-time waiter. That is not fair.”

Huan Ning Huang, another former employee of Happy Lamb Hot Pot, reported experiencing similar mistreatment. 

“I never received any minimum wage,” said Huan Ning Huang through a translator. “The kitchen and manager would take our tips, even though they didn’t do the work of the waiters.”

In addition to allegedly perpetrating various wage violations, Zhang made a habit of verbally abusing his staff, Zheng claimed to Eater. 

“Even if we made a minor mistake, he would scold us harshly with very, very ugly words,” said Zheng.

Zheng’s allegations were corroborated by Huan Ning Huang.

“During my employment there, the manager [Zhang] would often scold us for no reason,” Huan Ning Huang told Eater.

According to the complaint, Zheng didn’t directly complain to management, but he was still retaliated against, he said. When another coworker mentioned Zheng’s name in a conversation with Zhang detailing the violations and abuses, Zhang began decreasing Zheng’s hours on the schedule.

“My schedule sharply declined until there wasn’t any work for me to do,” said Zheng.

According to the complaint, two employees had their hours cut. 

According to both Huan Ning Huang and Zheng, Zhang currently splits time between the Happy Lamb Hot Pot location that recently opened in Chinatown and the Cambridge location, while Jinling “Elaine” Huang manages the Chinatown location.

Happy Lamb Hot Pot is believed to be an affiliate and/or franchisee of Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, which was founded in Inner Mongolia, China, and now operates more than 30 restaurants in the United States and Canada. 

According to court documents obtained by Eater, workers in New York City filed a similar complaint against Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot with the United States District Court of Eastern New York in March 2018. (Michael Puileung Luk, a defendant in the Cambridge complaint, is also named as a defendant in the New York complaint, however there is a slight difference in the spelling of his name; he is referred to as Michael Pui Leung Luk in the New York complaint.) The New York plaintiffs allege many of the same violations that the Cambridge plaintiffs allege, including minimum wage violations, failure to pay overtime, and wage theft in the form of improper payout of tips. 

Huan Ning Huang told Eater that when he approached Zhang to ask him why he had to split tips with management, Zhang told him that the practice was brought to Cambridge from the New York City locations.

The Cambridge complaint alleges that Michael Puileung Luk was one of two managers of Happy Lamb Hot Pot when it was first registered to operate in Massachusetts, a position he remained in until at least February 2017.

The complaint asserts that Bin “Eason” Zhang and Jinling “Elaine” Huang co-managed the restaurant for a period of time during which the violations and abuses occurred, and therefore “exerted significant daily operational control over important aspects of Hot Pot Boston 1 LLC’s business, including decisions related to the hiring and firing of personnel, tip pooling, employee scheduling, and employee compensation.” According to the complaint, the other defendant listed, Kong Wai “William” Cheung, is still in a management role at the restaurant.

Along with wage violations, the complaint alleges that Happy Lamb Hot Pot also exposed its staff to potentially hazardous cleaning chemicals, which in some cases led to burns and other injuries of the skin. Huan Ning Huang detailed his injuries — and management’s unwillingness to allow him to use accrued sick time while his injuries healed — to Eater.

“The reason that I quit this job was because my hand got injured while working there, but Eason wouldn’t allow me to take any leave,” said Huan Ning Huang. “As a result, I couldn’t work there anymore and had to quit.”

Huan Ning Huang said that Happy Lamb Hot Pot uses “really, really intense bleach and detergents” to wash dishes and linens and that these chemicals burned his hands.

“When I opened the dishwasher, there was a really heavy scent of chemicals and detergent,” said Huan Ning Huang. “It made me want to vomit.”

“My skin was very irritated because of the exposure. It almost felt like being burned by fire. I couldn’t touch water. Eventually, all the skin peeled off. There were several workers who had similar skin conditions like mine, and there is one worker whose injury still hasn’t healed yet.”

Huan Ning Huang also said that he was concerned that diners might get sick after eating and drinking from dishes that had been cleaned with the harsh chemicals, and he told Eater that he reported the restaurant’s use of such chemicals to Cambridge’s Inspectional Services Department. The Cambridge Inspectional Services Department told Eater they had no record of any such complaint, however. 

Happy Lamb Hot Pot and the company believed to be its franchisor or affiliate, Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, have not responded to Eater’s requests for comment as of press time. This story will be updated as more information becomes available.