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Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen owners

This file photo shows Kam Chirring Sherpa (center) and Ngima Sherpa (right) at the Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen at 1148 Main St. in St. Helena. With them is Chirring's wife, Shova Sherpa. 

Two Napa and Sonoma County restaurant owners have been ordered by the state Labor Commissioner’s Office to pay an employee $14,000 in back tips that they illegally withheld from the worker.

The employee, Tashi Dhondup, immigrated to the U.S. from Tibet three years ago. Dhondup found a job as a server at St. Helena’s Himalaya Sherpa Kitchen.

Paid $10 an hour, he also received tips from customers.

Unfortunately, only about half of those total tips made their way into Dhondup’s pocket. According to the Labor Commissioner report, business owners Chirring Sherpa and Ngima Sherpa were keeping the other half.

“I was new” to American work regulations and rules, said Dhondup, who is 31. “I was making pretty good money, but I didn’t know” that withholding tips is illegal, he said in an interview.

After about seven months of working at the restaurant, and talking with other service industry workers, Dhondup questioned Chirring Sherpa about why he was keeping half his tips.

Sherpa told him the owners “were entitled to take 50 percent of the tips because they were a family owned business and also did the work of busing tables and serving food,” he said.

When Dhondup told Sherpa that wasn’t fair, he was fired, said the Labor Commissioner report.

“I was shocked,” Dhondup said.

Even after that, Dhondup was still willing to settle the issue. He told Chirring Sherpa, “If you pay me back, I will forget about what you did.”

Sherpa refused.

When Dhondup filed his case with the labor board, one of the Sherpas offered him $2,500 to settle the claim.

“I told him, no, I don’t want $2,500. I want what you took from me.”

Neither Sherpa showed up at the Labor Commissioner hearing, and on Feb. 13, Dhondup was awarded $14,000 for unpaid tips between Dec. 2, 2016 and July 15, 2017.

As of Tuesday, Dhondup had not yet received the money he is owed.

However, on Wednesday, business partner Chirring Sherpa said he had sent the check to the Labor Commissioner that same day.

He declined to comment further about his case with Dhondup, only to say, “I didn’t want to fight with him,” anymore.

That $14,000 is a lot of money to his family, Dhondup said.

“I’m struggling,” he said. “I need to support my family.”

Dhondup and his wife, Rowan Fasi, have a 4-year-old son.

The two met about 10 years ago when Fasi traveled from the U.S. to Nepal to study Shedra, a four-year course on Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan language.

Today, Fasi and their son live in St. Helena while Dhondup is living with a friend in Richmond and working at a Target.

Dhondup had some advice for other workers in his same situation.

Know your rights when you take a job, he said.

“Be smart,” he said. Ask for what you deserve.

“What’s right is right.”

According to the St. Helena restaurant website, Himalaya Sherpa Kitchen’s sister restaurants include Yak & Yeti in Napa and Ngima at Sonoma Grille in Sonoma.

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Business Editor

Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.