On Saturday, 350 former employees of the Western Jean Co., a defunct garment shop, gathered in the lobby of a midtown branch of Hanmi Bank to collect checks from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) for unpaid wages. The unusual event was the literal payoff of a garment-industry investigation that netted the most money ever for mistreated garment workers in Los Angeles.

Western Jean Co. was already the subject of a DOL investigation for wage violations when it failed to make payroll altogether in June 1997 — one month before going belly up. Despite the closure, the feds collected $165,000 — not from Western Jean, but from Fashion Resources, a Los Angeles manufacturer that had hired the subcontractor to make clothes. The legal mechanism used was the “Hot Goods Provision” of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which holds that garments can be treated as illegally produced until wage violations are settled. The successful enforcement action took seven months, an improvement over past waits of a year or more, according to the Labor Department.

In the bank lobby, former co-workers smiled and greeted each other with handshakes in a reunion with mixed emotions. “I thought I lost all the money,” said Antonio Valdovinos, who added that he and other workers still hope to get wages for unpaid overtime. That issue remains in arbitration.

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