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Know Your Rights
Source: Crain's New York Business
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

2 Brooklyn grocers face class-action suits

Workers at two Brooklyn supermarkets filed class-action lawsuits Thursday, alleging the owners of the shops violated minimum wage and overtime laws.

The suits, filed against a Fine Fare and a Key Food, are part of an ongoing campaign by New York Communities for Change—the successor to Acorn— and Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Local 338 to improve conditions for low-wage supermarket workers in the city.

The suit against Fine Fare alleges stock workers earned between $300 and $400 for weeks that ranged from 65 to 78 hours, starting in 2006. It claims they weren’t paid the time and a half required by law for hours in excess of 40, nor were they given bonus pay for days longer than 10 hours. The Key Food complaint makes similar allegations, charging that stock workers earned between $300 and $450 for weeks between 72 and 84 hours, without overtime pay, from 2007 through 2010.

“This is pretty common in a lot of stores in New York City and I see these as the first of many cases we’re going to bring,” said Arthur Schwartz, the workers’ attorney. Fine Fare owner Mustafa Aba Saab said he has not yet seen the suit. There was no answer at the Key Food store and there was no immediate response to an e-mail sent to Key Food corporate headquarters.

As part of the campaign, Mr. Schwartz sent a letter to the owner of a third shop—Golden Farm in Flatbush— threatening a suit by next week if he did not negotiate over minimum wage and overtime violations against a dozen employees. Workers there are trying to organize a union and Local 338 filed for an election Tuesday.

Sonny Kim, the owner of Golden Farm, said his lawyer has been working for four months to bring the situation to a close, negotiating with the state Department of Labor, which is demanding back wages and penalty payments. “We’re trying to settle,” he said. Organizers also announced Thursday that a union election would be held Monday at a fourth supermarket—Master Food in Flatbush, where workers say they are fighting for respect on the job.

“I’ve worked there from August 2004 and I have never had a vacation; I’ve gotten sick and had to go to work sick; I’ve worked on holidays and haven’t gotten paid extra; and I never got overtime,” said Jesus Najera, a 31-year-old immigrant from Honduras who plans to vote in favor of the union. “We think that with the union there will be changes for the better at the store.”

Since the campaign launched in December, organizers from Local 338 and New York Communities for Change have met with more than 300 workers. The drive combines the organizing of workers to demand back pay with more traditional efforts seeking union representation. New York Communities for Change has used its roots on the ground in Brooklyn to help activate workers who are often difficult to organize because many are undocumented. Late last year, the group organized a bus caravan that stopped at various supermarkets where workers claimed their rights were being violated.

“By combining the strength of the union and labor laws with a community base, the employer has to realize he can’t just treat these guys poorly or it’s going to blow up in his own backyard,” said Kevin Lynch, director of organizing at Local 338. The community group Make the Road New York employed a similar strategy in a campaign with the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union to organize retail workers on Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick in 2005.

The supermarket campaign comes as a new state law pushed by Make the Road is set to go into effect next month, increasing penalties on employers who violate wage and hour laws and don’t properly keep records.

Workers will be able to recoup the money they are owed, plus a 100% penalty. The current law allows for just 25% in damages, meaning even if caught, employers typically end up paying little more than they stole. The act also beefs up protections for workers who are retaliated against for exerting their rights, and gives the state’s commissioner of labor new powers to collect damages from employers who violate the law.

Wage theft costs more than 317,000 low-wage workers in the city $18.4 million per week, according to a 2010 study by the National Employment Law Project. The workers lose almost 15% of their earnings due to labor violations—$58 each per week, or $3,016 every year, according to the group. Minimum wage violations are particularly prevalent in grocery stores, the study showed.

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