Is there any limit to how far bosses will go to deprive workers of wages they are owed by law?
Consider a warehouse and distribution center in Chino, Calif., that covers the space of 20 football fields and employs hundreds of workers who label and pack apparel, shoes and electronics for major brands and retailers such as Wal-Mart, Levi’s and Puma.
The operator, Quetico, LLC, provided only three time clocks for the warehouse, and workers said sometimes one or more did not work. As a result, 100 or more workers might line up to punch in and out of work at the beginning and end of the day and at lunch break. If workers punched in late, supervisors issued warnings. So workers came earlier and earlier and were forced to stay late to punch out. They also lost much of their half-hour lunch break.
But, workers say, Quetico altered the time cards to show them getting their full lunch break and working a normal day. When workers complained and asked to be paid for the full time they worked, the company threatened them with warnings if they persisted. Three warnings meant termination.
That presented employees a grim choice: Seek justice and be fired, or keep their jobs and get cheated. Underscoring this point, Quetico suspended three workers who complained to the state Labor Commissioner’s office.
Earlier this week, the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement issued a citation to Quetico for cheating 865 workers of $1.1 million over a period of three years by violating state laws governing overtime pay and lunch breaks. Besides ordering Quetico to pay the $1.1 million in back pay to its employees, the state fined the company $200,000 and ordered changes in its time-clock policies.
Dianne Enriquez, worker center coordinator for Interfaith Worker Justice, a national network that has played a large role in making wage theft a hot issue, says that many employers try to compel workers to work “off the clock,” but she had never heard of anything quite like the Quetico case.
“It’s pretty extreme,” she says.“But this sort of thing is happening to workers every day in industries across the board.”
The battle is not over, says Elizabeth Brennan, an organizer for Warehouse Workers United (WWU), which helps run the resource center that assisted the workers in bringing the violations to the state’s attention. Getting the word to all workers so they can collect the money may be difficult, Brennan says, since “there is a climate of fear in the warehouse,” stemming in part from the earlier threats management made.
WWU is no stranger to long-haul cases against big operations. It helped workers at a nearby Mira Loma warehouse – run by Schneider Logistics exclusively for Wal-Mart – bring a lawsuit against Schneider for wage theft. At the plaintiffs’ request, the judge hearing the case recently added Wal-Mart as a defendant.
Warehouse worker advocates have long argued that Wal-Mart calls the tune for its warehouses, even if other companies nominally operate them and directly hire or supervise workers. Less directly, the market power of the behemoth of Bentonville is such that it is sets work standards for most big box retail stores and for the entire logistics business — the transportation, tracking and warehousing of goods. And “everyday low prices” seem to rely, increasingly, on everyday theft of wages from workers.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.