If the claims of nine recently fired grocery baggers are true, the biggest supermarkets in Bushwick and Ridgewood have been treating local immigrants, for the past seven years plus, as if they were slaves.
The really strange part of the story is that, unless the nine had been fired en masse last November, they all, by their own admission, would probably still be working fifty- to sixty-hour weeks for a wage of exactly $0 per hour.
"It’s in the community," reasoned Maria Rodriguez, "so it’s easy to get to."
"I thought it would get better," explained Dinora Aybar, "and there were no other jobs around."
Rodriguez, Aybar, and seven of their former co-workers, all from the Dominican Republic or Ecuador, are now suing their former employer, the huge Food Bazaar market on the Brooklyn side of Wyckoff Avenue, just two blocks south of Myrtle Avenue. (For the ten-block stretch from Myrtle to Stephen Street, Wyckoff serves as the borough boundary separating Brooklyn’s Bushwick from Queens’ Ridgewood.)
"People from all over, people of all races, come here to shop," explained Rodriguez last Wednesday afternoon. "There’s always a lot of people in the store." Rodriguez – in between chants of, "We want work, but this time with pay!" – then admitted that she still shops there herself.
The nine plaintiffs in the case, which is seeking back pay and damages in excess of $1.5 million dollars, were all present outside the store, on the Wyckoff Avenue sidewalk last Wednesday, to gain public attention for their cause and to serve the store owners with the lawsuit. "I spoke with the manager," explained Cara Greene, one of their lawyers, "who refused service. The next step will be to go through an intermediary and serve all three owners."
When the Ledger/Star asked the manager on duty that day what was going on, the man, who sat behind a desk in a room next to the rows of checkout aisles, would only identify himself as "James" and said, "I don’t know the details. Until I read the lawsuit, I can’t comment." When asked if he was one of the owners, James laughed and said, "I wish."
Meanwhile, a local building superintendent who would identify himself only as "Blacks," said he saw one of the owners, who are all Korean, near the press conference. "Yeah, he drove up in his car. He was just keeping an eye on everything."
According to the complaint, the Food Bazaar is owned by a parent company called Bogopa Service Corporation, which is owned by a man named Hwee Ill An. Locally, everyone knows Hwee as "Francis."
"We hardly ever talked to them," recalled Aybar of the owners. "We would try to ask questions but they would act like they didn’t hear."
Shaun Reid, the general counsel for Bogopa Service Corporation, released the following statement to the media following last Wednesday’s lawsuit: "Food Bazaar is an equal employment opportunity employer that proudly employs men and women of all races and nationalities. All of our employees are paid at or above the minimum wage, with the vast majority of them being paid well above the minimum wage."
The statement continued: "We are proud to say that we are one of a very few private employers that still provides our employees with totally free health insurance. We have just been served with court papers indicating that we are being sued for wages allegedly due. This comes as a complete shock to us but we deny any wages are due any employee. We intend to vigorously defend this matter."
It is unclear, from that statement, if Bogopa is claiming the nine plaintiffs were never employees, or if they were paid at least minimum wage. The later defense would seem unlikely, because it would be so easily proved by pay stubs, and the company has not indicated they can produce any.
According to the plaintiffs, they all have regular schedules and were routinely asked to do tasks other than bag groceries, like clean and restock the aisles and fill-in as cashiers. After bagging groceries in shifts of ten hours or longer, they claim, tips from customers would provide them with, on average, $20 to $25 per day, well below the minimum wage.
According to David Colodny with the Urban Justice Center, even if the tip income did equal minimum wage, it wouldn’t matter. "The are a few very specific exceptions to the minimum wage rule," he explained, citing wait staff as an example. Grocery baggers are not one of those exceptions.
The grocery baggers were not the only people earning tips from Food Bazaar customers. According to Blacks, there are quite a few Caribbean and Latin men who work the large parking lot outside, taking grocery bags past the cart barriers, to cars and taxis. "They make a lot more than the women inside," revealed Blacks. "They can make over $100 a day, easy."
Colodny would not rule such workers out of any future lawsuits, even if they didn’t have regular schedules. "I’d have to know more about them," he said by phone, "but if they’re working on the property, then the employer is benefiting from what they do."
"Under the law," explained Greene to the media last Wednesday, "an employer who allows someone to work and benefits from that work is liable for back pay and damages, even if they were never formally hired."
Bogopa Service Corporation owns nine other supermarkets in the metropolitan area, including one just a few blocks away across Myrtle Avenue, called Food Dimensions. On the day the lawsuit was served at the Food Bazaar, several Latino workers could be seen playing a pick-up game of soccer atop the asphalt parking lot of the Food Dimensions. A Korean manager at the store joined in the game briefly, while two MTA bus drivers on break watched from the sidewalk.
According to Reid, the two supermarkets do not compete with each other, even though they are so close. "On the other side of Myrtle Avenue," he explained by phone, "it’s a very different ethnic mix. We sell different kinds of food there."
Even if the food being sold is different, according to most local observers, the employment practices most likely aren’t. "All the workers in the businesses around here are underpaid," argued Blacks. Indeed, the local advocacy group Make the Road By Walking recently published a report, called "Street of Shame," about the sub-minimum wage and no overtime pay practices of retail outlets along Knickerbocker Avenue, located just two blocks into Brooklyn from Wyckoff.
Make the Road By Walking offered assistance and support to the nine plaintiffs in the Food Bazaar case, as did the Urban Justice Center, the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, and the 318 Restaurant Workers Union.
Fung Wei is a member of the 318 union, which has been picketing for months outside a Chinatown restaurant. Last Wednesday he traveled to Bushwick to picket. "The Chinese community is here today," he rallied, "to protest these kinds of abuses, this tip stealing, these long hours. We are here today because it doesn’t matter what color you are, or whether you are man or woman. All kinds of restaurant and service workers have to work together."