Partial Victory Bittersweet for Laid-Off Bakery Worker at Center of Class-Action Suit

Kari Lydersen

Karen Leyva has become a leader in Rolf's Patisserie workers' fight for pay owed to them.

Rolf’s Patisserie in a Chicago suburb wasn’t just the place Karen Leyva worked, it was a huge part of her life. The employees were like family, greeting each other with hugs every morning, attending each other’s weddings and children’s birthday parties, getting together for barbecues and soccer games. They took great pride in the fancy, high-end cakes and other desserts made for major outlets like Whole Foods and for individual customers.

Every other weekend Leyva, 40, would treat herself with a Rolf’s cake – one of her favorites was vanilla chiffon with strawberries. A cake designer named Edgar helped give Leyva’s mother her best birthday and Christmas ever” in December 2005, her last before passing away the next year. Leyva’s mother loved the cello, so Edgar carved a cake in the shape of the musical instrument, with a bow and details in chocolate, so life-like you almost wanted to pick it up and play it.

Part of Leyva’s job as assistant office manager, working with customers and doing hiring and a range of administrative functions, was to help customers decide what custom cakes to order. The designers and bakers came up with elaborate creations including a castle with real lights and a carousel that actually moved. Leyva would swell with pride when customers sent her personal notes of thanks.

So when Leyva and a few other employees cleaning up on Sunday December 11 went to the company’s website and saw a terse message— dated December 10 — announcing that the bakery had closed, she was shocked and devastated. As I reported previously, a class-action lawsuit filed January 10 charges that Rolf’s owner Lloyd Culbertson, a former investment banker, violated the WARN Act by failing to give the 136 employees 60 days notice of the closing, or 60 days severance pay.

Leyva was among the first to find out about the closing, after she and a few others grew curious after seeing Culbertson ask a tech support person to help him access the company’s website. After they saw the message, she was near tears but expected Culbertson to come in and explain things. Though he was in an office just across the hall, Leyva said, Culbertson made us wait an hour” and then tersely repeated the message on the website with little explanation.

Leyva began a phone tree from her cell phone – those calls and the website were the only official notice employees got until letters arrived on Jan. 4 – more than three weeks later – informing them they’d been terminated.

At first Leyva held out hope the closing wasn’t for real, since the previous year, just days before Christmas in 2010, Culbertson had laid off almost the entire staff and then rehired many workers several weeks later. The class action suit charges this was also a violation of the WARN Act.

This time, it doesn’t appear anyone will be rehired. When workers cashed their final paychecks, they bounced. Many were assessed fees by banks and currency exchanges – Leyva has gotten threatening letters from a currency exchange saying she could be charged up to three times the amount of the check and face legal action. The final paychecks also didn’t include vacation pay workers had accrued.

Leyva’s cell phone has long been a central communication point for employees, so as checks started bouncing and as people wondered where to find food pantries and other new necessities, her phone was ringing night and day. Leyva told me she felt personally hurt and insulted by how Culbertson carried out the closing:

He never picked up the phone and said I’m sorry. He’s a business owner – if you have bank investment in your resume like he does then you would know if your business is going to hell more than 30 days ago. How come you didn’t have the decency to put out a letter and say, Guys I’m feeling jittery about the new year – I don’t know if we’re going to make it – you guys might want to save up a little money, or start looking elsewhere.’ As a human being I would express my concern for the people who made me who I am.

It wasn’t until later that they learned Culbertson had also allegedly violated the law. Jose Cabrera, who along with Leyva is a named plaintiff in the lawsuit, suggested they contact workers rights group Arise Chicago. Cabrera’s father had become a member of Arise previously after he had contacted the group about health and safety complaints at Rolf’s, where he used to work as well. (Arise workers center executive director Adam Kader said those complaints led to a fine by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.)

Workers set up a meeting with Arise for Jan. 4, where organizers were impressed to see 40 or 50 Rolf’s employees show up. On January 10 they held a picket outside the bakery, the same day the class action lawsuit was filed with Arise’s help. On January 18 Arise organizers reported that many people have gotten new checks that have not bounced, including their vacation pay, and Culbertson has promised to pay fees from the bounced checks.

Leyva and others see this as a victory obtained through their organizing and solidarity…but they say considering what they have gone through, it’s not enough. They are still demanding the 60 days severance pay legally due them, and any other outstanding pay due.

Leyva still gets emotional when she thinks about what she has lost with the closing of the company where she worked for six and a half years.

It’s like a family member dying to me. (Rolf’s) was everything to me. It was part of my family, and it fed my family, and it helped me pay my rent, which now I cannot pay. This has shaken my confidence and broken my spirit.

Leyva and her husband, who works at Whole Foods, support her 76-year-old ailing father and her two sons in their early 20s. Her sons take care of her father full-time, as a caretaker would be too expensive. Leyva has been unable to find another job so far, and she thinks her credibility with potential employers has been hurt because they assume she knew about or had some role in the abrupt closing of Rolf’s. She told me:

It affected our bills, our lives, the amounts of food we try to keep in the house – right now there’s no talk of extras – how sad is it if you want to buy an extra pack of cookies and you can’t. Right now my biggest fear is the owner (of her apartment) wanting to throw me out and the currency exchange coming after me.

Devastating as the experience has been, Levya said she and other workers have gained strength from pulling together to demand their rights and alert other employers that they have to follow the law. She said:

Here you’re going up against a business owner – it’s scary – I won’t say it’s not, it is. It’s not something you’re coached for – we’re learning along the way… Because we did have these established relationships with each other prior to this happening, who did we have to go to besides each other? And Arise really did rise us up from the ground, told us don’t give up, maybe there’s hope. The bottom line is we’re not separating – we’re arm in arm. Who we are before is who we are today and that’s not going to change.

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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