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Irvine Garment Firm to Contest Some Charges, Try to Reopen

February 15, 1996|DON LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — A day after government agents shut down Hi-Tech Expression for allegedly locking in workers overnight, the operators of the garment contracting firm said Wednesday that they planned to contest some of the citations and to reopen business as soon as possible.

Eunchang Lee, Hi-Tech Expression's owner, and his family returned to their embroidery shop Wednesday to a barrage of telephone calls from customers.

Some customers said they stood by Lee despite Tuesday's raid.

"He did good work and for a reasonable price," said Harry Miller, owner of Design Sophisticates, a Newport Beach firm that sent some of its embroidery work to Lee. "I have no reason to shrink away from the man."

Lee, 35, declined to comment Wednesday. But his wife, Aekyung, said their 6-year-old family business--which grossed as much as $450,000 annually--was certain to take a big hit because of the publicity surrounding the raid.

Tuesday evening, a dozen federal and state agents descended on Lee's business on Mitchell Street in an industrial park near John Wayne Airport. State agents confiscated more than 200 hats and clothes, and fined Lee $17,000. The bulk of the fine was for lacking workers' compensation insurance. The rest was for failing to register as a garment contractor and employing a minor without a work permit.

But the multi-agency raid was triggered by a tip that Lee was locking workers in overnight. Lee said Tuesday that he locked the doors to protect his merchandise, but he also stated that workers could force open the rear door to get out in an emergency.

State officials said the situation presented a serious risk to workers, who toiled from sunset to sunrise in a windowless room.

Lee faces a maximum fine of $10,000 from Cal/OSHA for failing to provide adequate exits. Rick Rice, a spokesman for the California Department of Industrial Relations, said Wednesday that Lee also might have to pay workers for unpaid overtime wages.

Aekyung Lee said that for now, she would contest the $500 citation for employing a minor. But she said her business had not yet decided whether to appeal the other fines.

Because Hi-Tech Expression was unregistered, Lee's customers face joint liability for any back wages due Lee's employees. State officials said they have asked Lee to turn over all payroll records and provide a list of all customers, which Lee said numbered between 40 and 50.

One customer, Expressions Originals in Lake Forest, said it was unaware that Hi-Tech Expression was unregistered. "All I know was that he was in business for several years and I just assumed everything was in order," owner Gary Mosh said.

Mosh said he would resume business with Hi-Tech Expression if Lee reopened and met all the legal requirements.

Lee said she and her husband were working to obtain a garment contractor registration and to restore their workers' compensation insurance policy, which was recently canceled by the carrier--Golden Eagle Insurance Co. of San Diego--after an insurance agent found the exits locked.

To obtain a registration, business owners must file a detailed application, provide tax information and pass a test. The process takes at least 45 days and costs $185.

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