Wednesday, Oct 27, 2010, 8:07 am
Baltimore Workers File Class-Action Suit Over ESPN Zone Closure
In June the ESPN Zone restaurant in Baltimore’s trendy Inner Harbor shopping and entertainment district closed after workers were given just a week's notice and state regulators were given only one day notice.
In a class-action lawsuit filed Monday naming ESPN Zone’s owner Disney, five workers allege this was a violation of the WARN Act, which requires at least 60 days notice—or 60 days severance pay—in the case of mass layoffs at companies with 100 or more employees. About 150 workers lost their jobs when the restaurant closed. About 50 workers and supporters protested Monday outside ESPN Zone, then marched to Baltimore District Court where the lawsuit was filed. (See photos by Bill Hughes here).
After the ESPN Zone closed June 16, workers were given a month’s pay on administrative leave and an additional severance based on length of service, which the company has said constitutes WARN Act compliance. But the workers’ attorneys and a grassroots labor group called United Workers says the total pay and severance is still less than what they would be due under the WARN Act. Severance was due under an agreement with Disney that should be separate from WARN Act compliance, they say.
The case has become a centerpiece of United Workers’ Economic Human Rights Zone campaign in the Inner Harbor, a novel strategy uniting workers at various restaurants and stores to demand that as the area has received substantial taxpayer subsidies, developers of the two major malls should be responsible for making sure workers are paid a state living wage and basic workers rights are respected. Monday's march came on the second anniversary of the declaration of the Human Rights Zone, and eight years after United Workers' founding out of a struggle on behalf of homeless vendors at the city stadium.
United Workers began targeting individual employers in the Inner Harbor, but decided it was a more pragmatic and meaningful campaign to target the development as a whole, and demand the two major companies—GGP and Cordish—that lease and sell space commit to making sure their tenants treat workers right.
In a playful post on the United Workers website, they describe the pervasive problems uncovered during an investigation by a pro-labor "Sherlock Holmes."
Holmes discovered that the trail of worker human rights abuses did not stop with the ESPN Zone, but extends throughout the harbor. Hearing from workers from the Cheesecake Factory, Phillips, and Hooters, he uncovered what lies beneath the surface: poverty wages, stolen tips, sexual harrassment, lack of healthcare, and barriers to education. ‘Different vendors, but the same story? The Inner Harbor is a Poverty-zone! But who is in control?,’ thought Sherlock.
ESPN Zone workers discovered by word of mouth that, they say, managers didn’t intend to give them any notice of the closing at all, until word leaked out over social media websites. That, in fact, is how numerous workers first heard the news. “We would just come to work one day and all the doors would be shut and locked,” said Lenard Gray, 28, who’d worked there more than six years.
The closing was especially problematic since it came during the busiest summer months, when workers count on racking up long hours that – even at pay rates just barely above minimum wage – allow them to save money for leaner seasons. Workers reported becoming homeless, having to withdraw kids from programs and being evicted since the closing.
“We were stunned. It was like walking through a dream. We were just devastated,” said former cook Winston Gupton. He had worked there for more than seven years, and lost his housing after the closure.
The WARN Act – which received national attention during the Republic Windows and Doors occupation in Chicago two years ago – was meant to provide workers time to look for other jobs and state agencies time to offer retraining and social services. The acronym means Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification. Even when WARN Act notice is given, an outpouring of state services or retraining opportunities is a rarity. And the Act is regularly violated with few repercussions.
Enforcing it takes lawsuits like the one filed by ESPN Zone workers, which are costly and time-consuming for low-income workers who hardly have time to wait around for a judgment.
But as in the Republic Windows and Doors struggle, the ESPN Zone workers’ lawsuit serves not only to try to hold an employer accountable but also to raise the public profile of WARN Act violations in general and of the Economic Human Rights Zone campaign. Organizers say they will continue to investigate possible labor law violations and working conditions at various Inner Harbor outlets including the Cheesecake Factory, Phillips Seafood and Hooters. When United Workers initially surveyed restaurants trying to find the "worst of the worst," Phillips' name came up, they said.
Former ESPN Zone cook Debra Harris said in a statement:
We are sending a message to Disney, ESPN Zone and Inner Harbor developers that private gain should not take precedence over human life. Corporate executives think they can break the law and just get away with it, because harbor developers do not enforce any human rights standards, but we are human beings and we have the right to dignity and respect.
Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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