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Published September 26 2010

Refugees win case over wage dispute

A group of young Bhutanese refugees took their case all the way to the North Dakota Department of Labor this summer – and won.

The department recently found in favor of four workers who say they were paid a fraction of what they earned working for a Fargo business called the Happy Norwegian Cleaning Crew.

The owner, Kristi Ness, approached Yoke Sim Gunaratne of Fargo’s Cultural Diversity Resources last spring. The nonprofit works with new Americans, and, Gunaratne says, Ness said she could use workers for a new business.

The Happy Norwegian Cleaning Crew had landed a contract to clean the bakery at the West Village Hornbacher’s in south Fargo. Tika Lamitarey and three other Bhutanese jumped at the opportunity.

Lamitarey says it wasn’t until three months and, in his case, 225 hours of work later, that the workers got their first paychecks. His was for $700, some $1,100 less than what his time sheets suggest he was owed. Gunaratne says she checked with Ness a couple of times and was assured the workers would get their payment.

“Kristi was so nice and so polite,” Lamitarey says. “We always thought she will pay us.”

He and the other workers quit in June. With help from Job Service, they put together wage claims with the Labor Department.

“I was so optimistic when I first came to America,” Lamitarey wrote to Kathy Kulesa at the department, “but nowadays my optimism is transferred into an oasis of pessimism and failure.”

Kulesa said Ness did not respond to two letters asking for a response. Last month, the department ruled in favor of the workers and referred the case to the state’s attorney general for collection.

After the determination, Ness sent a letter to the department stating she had tried to pay the workers during an August meeting at Fargo’s Lutheran Social Services. Lamitarey, a student at North Dakota State University, said he and his friends left the meeting when Ness started negotiating about the amounts.

“She used us, thinking we are new American and we can’t do anything,” he says.

Ness told The Forum she was dealing with the serious illness of a close loved one over the past week and couldn’t comment.

Mike Siemienas, a spokesman with Twin Cities-based Supervalu, which owns Hornbacher’s, said the store has started handling the cleaning of the bakery in-house.

“We worked hard to bring the parties together,” he said, “and they are working to resolve their differences.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529