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Mexican Grocery Chain Workers Sue for Unpaid Wages in Silicon Valley

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R.M. ArrietaSAN FRANCISCO—More than 50 former workers at a now-defunct supermarket chain in Santa Clara County (aka Silicon Valley and San Jose) are suing their former employer for unpaid wages.

The two-store chain went bankrupt after being open less than three years and  receiving half a million dollars in assistance from the city’s economic development department. The announcement came from the Bay Area Justice for Mercado Workers Coalition and San Francisco-based Instituto Laboral de la Raza (ILR). (Mexican grocery stores are known as “mercados.”)

The workers are seeking more than $200,000 in unpaid wages and penalties. The former Su Vianda workers were fired last June. Marc L. TerBeek, general counsel for ILR, is representing the group.

TerBeek said in a prepared statement that they are suing the listed owner of the chain, Kimomex; the president, Al Lujan; the board of directors; the parent company, Pacific Community Ventures, along with its board of directors, because

…Kimomex’s efforts to evade responsibility for their claims by filing bankruptcy revealed that it was a shell organization that did not maintain any books or records, and which could not account for any revenues it had generated, including a $500,000 investment the City of San Jose made in 2008 with taxpayer funds.

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The Justice for Mercado Workers Campaign holds a press conference in San Jose, Calif., in December 2009. (Photo via People's World)

According to the complaint, Kimomex, doing business as Su Vianda, owned and operated a chain of ethnic-oriented supermarkets that catered to predominantly Latino customers.

The suit says the workers were denied rest periods, meal breaks and overtime pay, while Su Vianda/Kimomex deducted earnings for medical insurance that was never purchased and engaged in “the unlawful business practice of failing to pay final earned wages to employees it terminated.”

When the workers were fired in June 2010, Kimomex sought bankruptcy protection but then could not account for its liabilities or assets, nor were there corporate books or records.

The supermarket chain did not pay final earned wages to workers it terminated and deducted wages for medical insurance that was never obtained. The workers were told they were not entitled to rest period and meal breaks.

The workers are calling for a jury trial.

Calls to Kiromex’s San Jose headquarters were unanswered. TerBeek says the workes are owned at least $75,000 in unpaid wages and $150,000 in penalties for failure to pay them as promised.

The Coalition of Bay Area Mercado workers includes community, labor and faith-based groups who are looking at ethnic grocery stores, commonly called “mercados” to comply with state and federal laws for workers as well as to help them fight for their right to form a union.

Local 5 President Ron Lind remarked during a press conference in December,  “We have a broader mission in the labor movement and as a union. That is to advocate on behalf of all the workers in the industries we represent, including those in the mercados [Mexican markets]…”

About 30,000 Californians work in mercados throughout the state, many of them recent immigrants from Latin America and Asia.

The Justice for Mercado Workers Campaign, which consists of several community organizations and USCW Local 5, has developed a Code of Conduct to empower Latino and Asian mercado workers through labor organizing activities.

In the Bay Area, it is estimated there are some 12,000 mercados workers. Many are paid poverty wages, and their employers don’t observe labor law, which means they don’t get meals and rest breaks, and endure verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse.

This blog originally appeared on http://www.inthesetimes.com on March 3, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: R.M. Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked at three daily newspapers and two television stations and is a former of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of outlets. She can be reached at rmarrieta@inthesetimes.com.


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Employee Rights Short Takes: New Evidence Of Gender Pay Gap, Race Discrimination, Disability Discrimination And More

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ellen simonHere are a few short takes about employment discrimination stories that made the news this past week:

New Evidence Of Gender Pay Gap And Discrimination Against Mothers In Management

Women made little progress in climbing into management positions according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office yesterday.

As of 2007, the last year for which the data was available, women made up only 40% of managers in the United States work force compared to 39% in 2000. In all but 13 industries covered by the report, women had a significantly smaller share of management positions than men when compared to the overall workforce.

In addition, managers who were mothers earned 79 cents of every dollar paid to managers who were fathers.

The report was prepared at the request of Representative Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York, and chairwoman of the Joint Economic Committee for a hearing before that committee on Tuesday — where witnesses  talked about the  “shockingly slow rate of progress” for women in corporate management positions and the “motherhood wage penalty.”

Several individuals who testified urged the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act as a partial remedy to the issues surrounding gender discrimination in the workforce.

For more about the report read the NY Times article here. For a copy of the report from Rep. Maloney’s website and more about the hearing read and watch here.

Employee With Multiple Sclerosis Settles Discrimination Case For $1.2 Million

An ex-employee of the Madison New Jersey Board of Education with multiple sclerosis settled her disability discrimination case for $1,200,000, including attorney fees, as reported yesterday by DailyRecord.com and Lawyers USA. Disability discrimination is prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Joan Briel, a former accounts payable secretary, was diagnosed with MS in 2002. She claimed that her employer retaliated against her by inappropriately increasing her workload, repeatedly harassing her and failing to take action on her requests for reasonable accommodation — including her request to work on the first floor instead of the third floor.

Briel also claimed that the stress of the work environment caused her to relapse and that she was fired while she was on medical leave.

The case was heading for a jury trial when the settlement was reached. Ms. Briel will receive $412,000 in the settlement. Her attorneys will receive $877,303 for the work they did on the case. The court also awarded Briel over $43,000 in costs.

Plaintiffs in civil rights cases may recover attorneys’ fees – if they prevail — in addition to their individual award in most cases. These legal provisions are intended to encourage attorneys to represent individuals who are unable to invoke the protection of civil rights laws because they can not afford a lawyer.

Discrimination cases are difficult to litigate and are often complex and protracted. Therefore, it’s not unusual for the attorneys’ fees ( on both sides) to be larger than the award, or greater than the amount in controversy.

This newly reported case is but one example of the potentially high costs to employers when employment discrimination cases are not resolved early.

EEOC Settles Race Discrimination And Retaliation Case For $400,000

The Cleveland office of the EEOC announced a $400,000 settlement of a class action race discrimination and retaliation case against Mineral Met Inc., a division of Chemalloy Company.

Evidence in the case showed that black employees were disciplined for trivial matters – such as having facial hair or using a cell phone — while white employees were not disciplined for the same conduct. When one of the supervisors complained, it resulted in intensified racially discriminatory treatment and retaliation according to the EEOC.

The EEOC also charged that African-American employees were also subjected to other forms of racial harassment, including evidence that a white supervisor placed a hangman’s noose on a piece of machinery. (once again shocking that this is still going on)

Race discrimination in employment and retaliation for complaining about discrimination violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This article was originally posted on Employee Rights Blog.

About the Author: Ellen Simon: is recognized as one of the leading  employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States.She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen’s a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net.


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Racial Slur at Chevron Sparks Outrage

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OtaPhoto2SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Chevron Corporation’s multi-million dollar “Human Energy” advertising campaign touts how much Chevron values people.  Chevron’s website promotes the “Chevron Way” – the company’s commitment to complying with the law and placing “the highest priority on the health and safety of our workforce.”

The reality for John Suzuki, who worked at Chevron for over 35 years, was much different.  An award-winning patent liaison in Chevron’s Law Department in Richmond, CA, Suzuki was forced to take early retirement this month rather than risk his health by returning to work under a supervisor who harassed and threatened him, and called him a “stupid Jap.”

Suzuki wanted to continue working at Chevron, but the company refused his doctors’ directives that he must be moved to a different department or else he would be at high risk of having a heart attack.

“Stupid Jap” Slur

The doctors had diagnosed Suzuki as being at high risk of another heart attack after he had at least two episodes of severe chest pains following incidents in which his supervisor, Alan Klaassen harassed him by yelling at him, making false accusations and threatening him.

After one such incident in January 2008, Suzuki went to his doctor, who told him that he had to reduce his workload or else he might have a heart attack.  When Suzuki told Klaassen and a manager, Frank Turner, what his doctor said, Klaassen and Turner laughed at Suzuki.

Things came to a head in August 2009 when Klaassen again yelled at Suzuki, waved his fist in his face, threatened him and falsely blamed him for problems in the work.  Klaassen also called Suzuki a “stupid Jap.”

Use of racial slurs by supervisors on the job violates federal and state anti-discrimination laws and laws prohibiting hostile and abusive work environments.  As one federal appeals court noted in 1993, “Perhaps no single act can more quickly ‘alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment’ . . . than the use of an [unambiguous] racial epithet . . . by a supervisor….”

Following the August 2009 incident, Suzuki again suffered severe chest pains.  His doctors put him on medical leave and have been treating him since then.  They told Chevron that he could return to work only when he was taken out of his hostile work environment and  moved to a different department.

Chevron categorically refused to consider moving Suzuki to a different department.  If Suzuki did not return to his department and his supervisor Klaassen, he faced termination, Chevron told him.

Suzuki got an attorney, John Ota of Alameda, CA, who pointed out to Chevron that under California law, the company must separate Suzuki from Klaassen, at the very least until Chevron did a fair and thorough investigation of Suzuki’s charges that Klaassen had insulted him with a racial epithet and otherwise created a hostile work environment.

Investigation or Cover-up?

Demanding that Suzuki return to work under Klaassen before Chevron had even investigated the matter assumed that Klaassen would be cleared, Ota noted, an indication that  Chevron had no intention of conducting a fair and objective investigation as required by law.

Chevron refused to budge.  Faced with termination and the possible resulting loss of his retirement benefits, Suzuki reluctantly chose early retirement on February 1.

Meanwhile, Japanese American and Asian American organizations, disturbed about Suzuki’s situation, began contacting Chevron to express their concerns.

Richard Konda, Executive Director of Asian Law Alliance in San Jose wrote Chevron on January 12, stating that it was “highly inappropriate and insensitive” for Chevron to demand that Suzuki return to work under Klaassen before completing its investigation.

Patty Wada, Regional Director of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) Northern California-Western Nevada-Pacific District, said in a  January 22 letter that she was appalled to hear that Suzuki had been subjected to racial slurs by his supervisor.

Under pressure, Chevron hired an outside Japanese American attorney, Susan Kumagai, to investigate Suzuki’s charges.  On her website, Kumagai describes herself as a specialist in “representing management” against discrimination charges.

Suzuki asked Kumagai and Chevron how many such investigations Kumagai had done in the past and in how many of those investigations, if any, she had concluded that a hostile work environment existed.  Neither Kumagai nor Chevron responded to these questions.

Not surprisingly, Kumagai conducted a quick investigation and concluded that none of Suzuki’s charges could be substantiated.  Chevron informed Suzuki of these results on February 16, but refused to provide him with a copy of Kumagai’s report.

In her hasty effort, Kumagai failed to even talk to some witnesses Suzuki said could confirm that he told them about Klaassen’s racial slur soon after it happened.  Because in this, as in many other harassment cases, there were no witnesses to the actual harassment, such corroborating witnesses are often crucial to verifying the victim’s account of what happened.

The failure to interview corroborating witnesses, hiring as the investigator an attorney who defends management for a living, and Chevron’s refusal to provide Suzuki with a copy of the investigation report – these are all “signs pointing to a cover-up,” not a fair and objective investigation, says Ota.

Letter Writing Efforts

Suzuki is continuing to ask organizations to write Chevron on his behalf.  What is important to him, he says, is “the principle of the matter – racial remarks like this cannot be tolerated.”

The points he wants organizations to make in their letters to Chevron are first, that Chevron conduct a fair and thorough investigation of his charges, an investigation by someone who has a history of doing evenhanded investigations, not by a management defense attorney.

Second, Suzuki wants Chevron to provide him with Kumagai’s investigation report, and also to provide the report when a fair and thorough investigation is completed.

Last, Suzuki asks that Chevron fire Klaassen if it finds that Klaassen did call Suzuki a “stupid Jap” and that Suzuki be allowed to return to work at Chevron in a different department.

Leaders of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (NCRR) in Los Angeles wrote to Chevron on February 10.  Paul Osaki, Executive Director of the Japanese Community and Cultural Center of Northern California sent Chevron a letter on February 19.

Other organizations in Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco have also agreed to write to Chevron.
Those interested in contacting Chevron should write to: John S. Watson, Chief Executive Officer, Chevron Corp., 6001 Bollinger Canyon Road, San Ramon, CA 94583.

About the Author John Ota is a solo employment attorney in Alameda, CA.  He has been representing employees for over 11 years in discrimination, retaliation, harassment, wrongful termination, and overtime pay cases.  He is a member of the National Employment Lawyers Assoc. and the California Employment Lawyers Assoc.


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Objections to Kodak’s Proposed Race Discrimination Class-Action Settlement

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Image: Marcia McCormickIn 2004, a group of Black workers of Eastman-Kodak filed a class action against the company, alleging widespread discrimination in pay and a failure to promote on the basis of race. A second class action was filed by another group of workers in 2007. The two classes together consist of about 3000 past and current employees. This past July, the company proposed a $21.4 million dollar settlement with the class–with payouts between $1,000 and $75,000 for individual class members. Magistrate Judge Jonathan Feldman (W. D. N.Y.) held a hearing Friday on the fairness of the proposed settlement, and will hold another on November 5. At Friday’s hearing, several class members objected that the payouts were too low, that the attorneys were getting too much of the award, and that class members who left the company before 1999 would be excluded.

Some examples of the unfairness of the award include that one decades-long employee would be awarded $1000 while her daughter, employed for only 11 months, would be awarded $3000. For more details see news reports here and here.

Despite this example, it’s hard to predict without knowing more what the judge will likely rule on whether the settlement is fair overall. In addition to the money, the company promised to improve its diversity training for supervisors and hire an industrial psychologist and two labor statisticians to review its pay and promotion policies and to recommend improvements. As Jason Bent recently suggested, having an external monitor to report to the court and some sort of ongoing supervision would be even better.

This article originally appeared in Workplace Prof Blog on October 24, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Marcia L. McCormick joined the SLU LAW faculty in 2009. Her scholarship explores the areas of employment and labor law, federal courts, and civil rights, broadly defined. She is also a co-editor and contributor to Workplace Prof Blog, which provides daily information on developments in the law of the workplace and scholarship about
it.


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