Thursday, December 17, 2009

Warehouse workers file wage theft lawsuit

By Pepe Lozano

Elwood, Ill. - Workers employed by a large staffing agency at a Wal-Mart warehouse here filed a class action lawsuit Dec. 10 alleging that Select-Remedy, the temp agency contracted to staff the warehouse has been shorting wages over the past several years.

The lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, also alleges that the company did not pay time-and-a-half for overtime work.

The workers, who distribute products to stores in the Midwest, say they were paid in split checks to avoid overtime payments. They also claim they were not fully paid for hours worked, a practice known as "wage theft."

The suit, filed under the Illinois Day Labor and Temporary Services Act, targets Select-Remedy, a California-based nationwide temp agency also known as Real Time Staffing Services, Inc. The workers are being represented by the Working Hands legal clinic

In a press release Ruben Bautista, a worker and plaintiff in the suit said, "Wal-Mart is the richest company in the world, but the people who distribute their products are treated like slaves." He continued, "Our suit is against the temp agency, but we hold Wal-Mart responsible for what has happened to us. They control what happens in their warehouse."

Miguel Deniz, another worker said something was wrong when he began to notice he was getting paid fewer hours than he had worked. Deniz said the company was dividing up his work hours into short blocks to avoid both the appearance of his working more than 40 hours a week and the necessity of paying him overtime.

Speaking to a reporter with In These Times, Deniz, a 62-year old veteran day laborer said he almost always never got paid his complete hours of work.

"To avoid paying us 40 hours, they gave us six hours here, six hours there," he said. "Also, if in four days I worked 30 hours, they only paid me for 17 or 18."

Deniz adds he would work for 57 hours and only get paid for 35.

"I think it's unjust that we're not getting paid complete hours for overtime. We're being defrauded," he said during a press conference in front of a Chicago west side Wal-Mart store Dec. 10.

"It's an injustice and an abuse what they are committing against us,"
said Deniz.

Critics say the giant Centerpoint Intermodal Center in Elwood, Ill., where the Wal-Mart warehouse is located made Chicago the distribution capital of the hemisphere.

"Retailers like Wal-Mart take advantage of Chicago's position as a rail and transport hub," said Abraham Mwaura, coordinator of Warehouse Workers for Justice. "They made $3.24 billion last quarter, but they wont even pay their workers what they are owed. We can't allow this in our community."

A Wal-Mart spokesperson has reportedly said the company hired another company to manage its warehouse, which hired the temp agency. Wal-Mart says they work to comply with all labor laws and regulations and they rely on their third-party vendors to do the same.

According to Mark Meinster, board member with Warehouse Workers for Justice, Will County, where the Wal-Mart warehouse is located, has the highest concentration of temp agencies in Illinois on a per capita basis. Speaking to the Bolingbrook Sun, Meinster notes some distribution companies hire temp agencies to avoid paying benefits including health insurance, and vacation and holiday pay.

"We feel that the logistics industry in Will County needs to look at this problem and take responsibility for what's happening in this supply chain," he said. "These could be very good, blue-collar jobs. There's no reason these jobs shouldn't be paying a living wage and shouldn't be providing decent benefits for people."

Meinster points out that violations against the Wal-Mart warehouse workers are not seen everywhere. However they are prevalent in multiple warehouses given that 70 percent of the industry are temporary workers.

It's the law if you work for one employer more than 40 hours a week, they have to pay you time and a half, he said.

Chris Williams, an attorney representing the workers said Select-Remedy is primarily responsible for the alleged wage. Yet Wal-Mart and other big warehouse owners who contract with temp agencies are also ultimately at fault both legally and practically.

Big companies like Wal-Mart pit smaller temp agencies against each other to get the lowest price, he said.

They'll do whatever it takes to drive labor costs down and the only way to make a profit is to cheat the workers, he said.

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