Former and current kitchen workers won a $1.3 million settlement against Burma Superstar, a Bay Area Burmese food chain, in Alameda Superior Court on Tuesday.
In a class-action lawsuit, workers alleged that Burma Superstar and its sister restaurants, Burma Love and B Star, had failed to pay workers minimum or overtime wages and sick leave. The lawsuit also alleges that the Burmese food empire did not provide sufficient breaks for its workers and unlawfully retaliated against workers by eliminating tips for its back-of-the-house staff.
The tips were reinstated before the settlement, according to Carole Vigne, a lawyer from Legal Aid at Work.
“That is a significant change in our post-pandemic world,” Vigne says. “Without customers eating at restaurants, it’s not clear whether tips are still coming. And for so many restaurant workers, it’s really the tip that makes their work financially viable.”
When the lawsuit was first filed in 2016, owners denied the allegations, calling them “frivolous” and “false.” A spokesperson for Burma Superstar told the San Francisco Chronicle that the chain would “be totally exonerated and will prevail in court.”
But after 353 former and current workers alleged unfair treatment and unlawful retaliation, the two parties settled in Alameda Superior Court.
The Burma Superstar chain that exists today started off as a single restaurant in the Inner Richmond. But when the restaurant was in danger of closing permanently in 2000, current owner Desmond Tan took over. In the two decades since, Burma Superstar has become something of a household name in San Francisco. Now Bay Area foodies line up on Clement Street for hours to get a taste of its infamous tea leaf salad.
“Burma Superstar has always been, and continues to be, dedicated to the well-being of its staff. Numerous kitchen and waitstaff who have been our employees for over 10 years can attest to this dedication,” Tan, the owner of Burma Superstar, said in an emailed statement. “While we strongly disagreed with the allegations in the class action lawsuit, we settled the lawsuit in order to move on.”
Burma Superstar has agreed to reinstate benefits like holidays, and translate workplace handbooks and rules into Burmese, Chinese and Spanish, three of the five or six languages Vigne says are spoken in Burma Superstar kitchens. The restaurant has also promised to provide training during paid time and create rest areas for workers.
“Even after a case is settled, there’s still a lot of fear. They were just so brave,” Palyn Hung Mitchell says of the 353 workers. Hung Mitchell notes that of the workers, many Burmese immigrants were afraid of speaking out against authority figures, particularly because of the tumultuous history their home country of Myanmar — formerly known as Burma — has had.
But after this win, both Hung Mitchell and Vigne hope that this lawsuit will educate business owners and have wide-spread impacts on the Bay Area food industry.
“We can use the opportunity to build a better industry,” Hung Mitchell says. “It’s like a crucible now.”
Grace Z. Li covers arts, culture and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.