Monday, Feb 28, 2011, 11:57 am
Wal-Mart Warehouse Workers File Class Action Wage Theft Lawsuit
CHICAGO—After three months of working in a Wal-Mart warehouse in the Chicago suburbs last fall, Robert Hines was fed up with getting paid much less than he had been promised by the company Reliable Staffing, which hired temporary workers to unload containers.
But the final straw came when he wasn’t paid at all for seven 10-12 hour days he’d worked shortly before Thanksgiving, he says. His calls to the agency weren’t returned, and when he went in person to demand his money, he said a manager claimed he and his work partner, Leo Williamson, had never worked those days at all.
So Hines and Williamson are among eight named plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit filed today in federal court charging Reliable Staffing, its owner Daniel Gallagher and Schneider Logistics, which runs the Wal-Mart warehouse in Elwood, Ill., with violating state and federal labor laws.
When former Reliable Staffing workers marched into the agency last Monday demanding pay and billing records (as is their right under the Illinois Day and Temporary Labor Services Act), they were not given any records and, they say, were greeted with hostility by Gallagher.
Under the Illinois day labor act, considered one of the nation’s strongest such laws, the workers have the right to see what Reliable Staffing billed Schneider for their work, and what it paid them. If the hours and/or piece rates reported to Schneider and reported to the workers themselves don’t add up, it could show Reliable Staffing was intentionally not paying workers for their labor.
The plaintiffs think that was standard practice at the company.
“The lady looked me in the face and said I have no recollection of you working,” said Hines, 37. “I got vulgar comments, a snazzy attitude from them. And I was breaking my back for peanuts, or to not even be paid at all.”
The lawsuit alleges violations of the aforementioned Illinois Day and Temporary Labor Services Act, along with the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Illinois Minimum Wage Law and the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act. Allegations include unpaid overtime, failure to pay state and federal minimum wage and failure to pay at least four hours’ wages when workers were called in to work, as mandated by the day labor services act.
The lawsuit says that plaintiffs who worked for Reliable Staffing from 2006 on were promised $10 an hour, plus a piece rate for unloading trucks, including a higher “premium” piece rate for heavier goods. It alleges they were not paid the piece rate as promised, and that in fact workers were often paid less than state and federal minimum wage along with not being paying overtime.
Hines said that at the rate promised, his paychecks for working often from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. should have been at least $300 a week – not counting overtime, which he also should have been due. But he was usually paid $239.
The suit also alleges workers were not paid for mandatory waiting time, adding up to multiple hours per week. It says that when one defendant wrote his arrival time on a sign-in sheet, a supervisor actually tore the sheet up.
"Reliable Staffing actually did not keep track of people's hours," said attorney Chris Williams. "That's illegal. Even if you are paying a piece rate, under federal law you need to show that adds up to at least minimum wage."
And the suit alleges Reliable Staffing violated state laws by failing to provide workers with documentation of where and for which third party they would be working, the nature of the work and how much they would be paid. The suit basically alleges that workers were paid the $10 piece rate only – often divided between two or three workers, workers say – and then the employer simply made up the number of hours the worker supposedly worked by dividing the piece rate by 10.
“The check stub is a fiction—their check stub could show they worked 36 hours when they really worked 72 hours,” said Williams. That’s why, Williams said, it’s so important the workers are able to demand their billing records under the state day labor services act.
“The workers are supposed to be able to go into the office and get this information themselves,” Williams said. “But unfortunately the law isn’t working. That’s why we had to take this to federal court.”
The suit says:
In fact, Defendants Reliable and Gallagher provided Plaintiffs and similarly situated laborers with check stubs that contained false information, showing the final gross compensation to the laborer divided by $10.00, thereby showing a number of hours worked on the check stub that bears no relationship to the actual number of hours worked…
Rather than provide Plaintiffs and the Class with the actual hours worked, Defendants Reliable and Gallagher provided Plaintiffs and the Class with a fictional number of hours worked and a fictional pay rate as described in paragraph.
The lawsuit adds that failing to provide workers documentation of their employment terms makes it easier for employers to cheat workers, saying:
The Illinois legislature found that such at-risk workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse of their labor rights, including unpaid wages, failure to pay for all hours worked, minimum wage and overtime violations, and unlawful deduction from pay for meals, transportation, equipment and other items.
The workers’ want unpaid wages, going back up to three years. The lawsuit also asks for statutory damages on some counts, attorneys’ fees, and that the company be blocked from violating these laws in the future. The suit notes that under the day labor services act, third party companies like Schneider that hire staffing companies are liable and legally responsible for any unpaid wages by the staffing company.
Depending on how the law is interpreted, it’s possible Wal-Mart itself could be liable.
“Hopefully this lawsuit will trickle down and help not just us but other people,” said Hines. “Maybe they’ll wake up and see that they have to treat people fairly if they want to get more out of us. Now they’re sitting there high on the hog, eating nice food, while we’re on the dollar menu at McDonald’s.”
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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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