On a cool Monday evening in August, a few minutes after the 10 p.m. closing of Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown, a group of men is settling in for the night. Some are from Guatemala, others are Mexican and one is a U.S. citizen. They crack jokes, drink beer and relax — some sprawled on bare mattresses, others lounging on dilapidated furniture amid an assortment of shopping carts.
Bright lights from the nearby baseball field flood a corner of the dimly lit camp, revealing discarded bottles and cardboard. The Chicago River is a few yards away, and downtown skyscrapers glitter in the distance.
Hidden by trees, behind railroad tracks, and next to a wall of concrete, the men live "debajo del puente" or "under the bridge." Drivers and pedestrians on the busy street above are likely unaware of the men who live and sleep below them, or that many of them are the same people who chop vegetables, clean floors and refill buffets at Asian restaurants across the Midwest.
Jose Luis Ruiz, a 39-year-old from Michoacan, Mexico, is lying on the mattress where he will spend the night, playing on his phone. He found his first job because of a newspaper ad looking for dishwashers. It included a place to live.
He said he works at Chinese restaurants all over the Midwest, putting in 12- or 13-hour days, making $2,000 a month. Each time he gets a job, he pays an employment agency a fee. Ruiz, and another man who asked not to be named, said they were paid less than minimum wage and no overtime while working at a Chinese restaurant near the Wisconsin-Illinois border.
The second man, who continues to work there, said during an interview in late September that he is paid in cash, leaving no record of his wages or hours worked. He said the managers are nice and provide a decent place to live, but the pay is too low.
As he took a break from mopping the floor of the Waukegan, Illinois, restaurant, the man said there are not many options for undocumented immigrants. "What can we do?" he asked in Spanish. Efforts to reach the owner to ask about the workers' pay were unsuccessful.
As for Ruiz, he planned to get up early the day after the interview to take the Amtrak to Detroit to work at a buffet.
"This work has not gone well for me," Ruiz said in Spanish. "We work, but sometimes they treat us bad. They kick us out of the jobs, but we don't have other options."
In 2015, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued three employment agencies in Chicago's Chinatown, and two Illinois restaurants that had used their services, for allegedly exploiting Latino immigrant workers in several states, including Wisconsin. Many of the workers, the agencies acknowledge in court records, are undocumented.
The restaurants rely on the agencies because they provide "'Mexican' workers that the restaurants can pay below minimum wage and discriminate against, seemingly without consequence," according to one of the pleadings in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois alleges that the "employment agencies essentially acted as central supply houses for a buffet restaurant industry seeking to profit from illegal and exploitative wages and conditions of employment (and) systematically selected and dispatched vulnerable Latino workers to abysmal working conditions in restaurants inside and outside Illinois."
It described "squalid" living conditions provided by one of the two Illinois restaurants sued in the complaint, with up to 15 employees "crowded . into a three-bedroom apartment with just one bathroom, and no furniture aside from soiled mattresses, which employees had resorted to finding themselves from a nearby garbage dumpster."
Included in the suit were copies of checks showing that dozens of eateries in Illinois and around the Midwest, 11 of them in Wisconsin, employed workers from Xing Ying Employment Agency, Jiao's Employment Agency and Chinatown Agencia de Empleo. In Wisconsin, restaurants in Eau Claire, Janesville, Madison, Milwaukee, Osceola, Stevens Point, Tomah and Waukesha were listed as regular customers of the three agencies.
The lawsuit claims that the agencies and their restaurant clients "collectively set the wages for each Latino worker referred as low as $3.50 an hour, well below the $8.25 minimum wage in Illinois." Wisconsin's minimum wage for non-tipped employees is $7.25.
The owners of Xing Ying, Jiao's and Chinatown Agencia denied the allegation in responses filed by their lawyers, arguing that wages were set at the request of the prospective worker and employer — not the agency.
The employment agencies charge employers between $120 and $220 for each worker, who are then required to repay the fee through their paychecks, the complaint alleges.
Employees reported working 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, without meal breaks. Workers interviewed by Madigan's office described high-pressure work environments, verbal abuse and threats of violence.
Beto, a 27-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico, told reporters from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Chicago Sun-Times that he encountered exploitative conditions while working in restaurants through employment agencies in Chicago. Beto asked that his last name not be used, out of fear of deportation and losing work with the restaurants. He declined to be photographed. Beto said he continues to work at restaurants but no longer gets work through the agencies.
In the basement of a mall in Chicago's Chinatown, seated outside a pair of nondescript and sparsely furnished employment agency offices, Beto recounted in Spanish and English being shuttled among Asian restaurants throughout the Midwest. He usually worked 11 or 12 hours a day, often without breaks.
A referral slip he gave the Center from Xing Ying, dated late June 2018, shows that he was headed to a restaurant in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to work for a $2,100 monthly salary. He was charged $100 for transportation, along with a $100 fee.
According to the lawsuit, a monthly lump sum is paid to each worker per job. The sum is not adjusted based on the number of hours worked, the lawsuit alleges, so the salaries "typically fall far short of the minimum wage required by law."
Beto said he got his first job in Appleton, Wisconsin, through a Chinatown employment agency about two years ago.
"Sometimes you don't know where you are. Sometimes they'll tell you, 'You're going to Indianapolis,' and when you are in Indianapolis, some people go for you and take you to another place, like little towns."
He said the jobs can be fleeting. One time, an employer sent him back to the agency because she did not like his tattoos.
"If the guys (restaurant owners), don't like you, they send you back, they don't care if you don't have any money," Beto said.
Beto described living in the winter in cold apartments or a wet basement provided by his employers. He said work hours were long with sometimes just white rice to eat.
"Sometimes, the guys cooking for you don't want to spend too much money on you," he said.
Beto said if a worker spoke out, he could be threatened with calls to police and deportation. So he and other employees learned not to speak up.
During a recent visit by reporters to the Xing Ying agency for this story, Beto broke that rule.
Beto said he was fired after one of the owners discovered he had spoken with the reporters. His belongings were placed on a bench outside the locked front door of the agency. He said he was also evicted from another employment agency where he had planned to spend the night.
Beto said most of his co-workers were Mexican, and the rest were Chinese. The Mexicans, he said, are "more cheap."
Zhu Ying Zhang (known as "Cindy" to workers) and Jun Jin Cheung own and operate Xing Ying, which at the time of the lawsuit had a Chicago business license but was not a licensed employment agency by the state Department of Labor, according to court documents.
During a recent visit, several mattresses were stacked against the wall in the second-floor apartment, and a row of rooms extended down a hallway on the right. About six workers were lounging around the mattresses, and several emerged from the rooms down the hallway.
When asked about the lawsuit, Zhang said she did not understand the question and abruptly disappeared into the hallway.
Cheung, who is described in court documents as enforcing agency rules through threats and violence, did not speak but glared and smoked throughout a brief interview. According to the lawsuit, Xing Ying charged up to 10 workers $10 a night each to stay at the employment agency. Workers were told to "stay away from the windows," according to the suit.
In a consent decree as part of the Illinois lawsuit, Hibachi Sushi Buffet in Cicero, Illinois, was ordered to pay a total of $96,000 in back wages to seven employees and penalties to the state. Hibachi Grill Buffet in Elk Grove Village was ordered to pay a total of $100,000 in back wages to four employees, plus penalties to the state.
Jiao's Employment Agency also was ordered to pay the state $16,500, and Chinatown Agencia de Empleo went out of business. In August, the government reached a consent decree with Xing Ying, but the details have not been formalized, according to court records.
Lisa Palumbo, supervising immigration attorney for the Chicago-based legal assistance group LAF, helped some of the workers in Madigan's case. She said while those employees were allowed to stay in the country, many of the other workers were deported.
Carolyn Morales, an organizer at Arise Chicago Worker Center, which educates immigrant and U.S.-born workers on their rights and organizes them to improve workplace conditions, said "worker exploitation is rampant" because networks provide employees to restaurants across the Midwest and beyond.
Beto said employees rarely get ahead working for the agencies because of the commissions and low pay.
"Almost nobody gains," he said. "We don't gain anything."