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Know Your Rights
Source: The Village Voice
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Trouble in Store

live off pennies a day? Ramon Nuñez has—literally. Pennies. Dimes. Quarters.
That’s what he’d pocket in wages from his shifts bagging groceries at the
Associated Supermarket, in Bushwick. Nuñez has toiled at the Knickerbocker
Avenue store for seven years, manning checkout aisles, packing cans and boxes
into bags. He’d work 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., six days straight, he says, yet the
store paid him nothing.

"I worked for
tips," says Nuñez, 77, in Spanish, speaking through a translator.

So did his
69-year-old wife, Tomacina, who started at the supermarket in 2004. When the
company hired her, she says, it informed her she would get no hourly or weekly wage,
unlike most employees there. She took the job anyway. "We had no
choice," she says. The two are newly legalized immigrants from the
Dominican Republic. For years, she adds, "We didn’t ask for money because
we didn’t have our papers."

They hustled hard for
their tips instead, loading bags into carts and pushing them to cars. Every
day, they’d place a box near the register. Customers would toss in coins, or
the occasional dollar. On average, the couple say, they earned $40 a day, $240
a week. That calculates out to $3.43 an hour, far below the state minimum
hourly wage of $6.75 and the federal minimum of $5.15.

Now that they have
green cards, the couple have made their own small change: They’ve decided to
speak up against what they call their employer’s abuses. They’ve consulted
lawyers about their paltry pay and signed affidavits attesting to the store’s
poor conditions. On July 17, they testified to the office of New York State
attorney general Eliot Spitzer.

"Every worker
has a right to dignity, and that dignity comes with a salary," says Nuñez.
He and his wife abruptly lost their jobs last month, without explanation, they
say. Still, Nuñez asks, "Why shouldn’t we complain?"

They’re doing more
than that. On June 18, a Bushwick immigrant- advocacy group called
Make the Road by Walking launched a store
boycott over what it claims are illegal labor practices. With the help of
workers like the Nuñezes, the group has also filed a complaint with the AG’s
office against 229 Knickerbocker Meat Corporation, which owns the supermarket.
The complaint accuses the company of violating minimum wage and overtime laws.

Deborah Axt, the legal director at Make the Road,
charges, "Associated is a very serious wage violator."
She has interviewed
and taken affidavits from more than half of the store’s 28-strong current
workforce, plus former employees, as corroborating evidence for the complaint.
Some employees, like the Nuñezes, get nothing but tips, she says. Others earn a
weekly wage that amounts to less than the minimum, she says, and still others
make base pay, but not overtime. By Axt’s calculations, the store has illegally
withheld some $1 million in wages and overtime pay from its employees.

Her claims are echoed
in the affidavits, copies of which Axt shared with the Voice. A
half-dozen or so Associated employees interviewed by the paper say they toil 60
hours a week for $300 to $325—or $4.29 to $4.64 an hour. The employees refused
to speak publicly for fear they’d be fired for complaining, as they suspect the
Nuñezes were. Still, they’re joining the protest effort. "It’s too much
time that the owners exploit us, and it’s time to stop," said one veteran

Bienvenidos Nuñez,
the company chairman, did not respond to four phone messages and a letter
seeking comment. Manhattan lawyer Joseph Rosenthal, who represents the company,
confirms that the AG’s office is investigating the store, although he stresses
that no formal action over wage violations has been made. He insists the
supermarket is complying with labor laws.

"There are no
accusations by anybody but this group," Rosenthal argues. Told that the Voice
had spoken with employees firsthand, he retorts, "People can make all the
allegations they want. My client hasn’t been charged with violating minimum
wage and hour laws, and that’s all there is to it."

Spitzer’s office
wouldn’t discuss details of the pending inquiry, such as whether investigators
had taken employee testimony or subpoenaed the store’s payroll records. Said
Patricia Smith, who heads the AG’s labor bureau, "We are moving forward.
It’s an ongoing investigation."

Smith says the
Associated complaint fits a pattern. In the last 18 months, her bureau has
worked with Make the Road on three such cases involving retail outlets on
Knickerbocker Avenue, all of which yielded settlements in favor of employees.

"The Associated
complaint is representative of the situation," Smith observes. "This
group has found stores with clear violations, and those violations are totally
typical of what we see in this office overall."

Take a stroll along
Knickerbocker Avenue, and you enter a kind of urban Wild West, with vendors
hawking cheap wares from blankets and carts along a crowded mile of 175 apparel
outlets, discount stores, and restaurants. Around here, low wages seem as
common as low prices, says
Nieves Padilla, the
labor organizer at Make the Road.
Only two retail outlets have unions,
guaranteeing decent wages. Many don’t pay the minimum, she says, let alone
time-and-a-half rates. To combat these illegal practices, Padilla and fellow
activists launched the Despierta (Wake Up) Bushwick campaign last year,
singling out big stores that can afford to pay workers a proper wage but don’t.

"Here’s a
target," says Padilla, motioning to the awning that reads ".99 and
Up." The discount store is brimming with mops, detergent, and paper
towels, each item under a buck. Last August, Spitzer reached a $70,000
settlement with the owner, Khubaib Massood, for back wages owed to four
employees. They were making $3.44 an hour.

Padilla points to
S&S Farms. "We confronted him," Padilla adds, referring to Heung
Park, who operates the greengrocer. A March 2005 complaint led to a $28,852
settlement with the AG for three employees earning an hourly $3.50. Today, the
AG’s office is prosecuting Park in Brooklyn Criminal Court for defying that

But the group’s
biggest coup, by far, came at Footco, a discount sneaker chain. An August 2005
complaint ended in a union contract for workers this year. That has meant not
just a doubling of salaries, but the providing of health benefits too.

Annette Bernhardt, of
the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, considers Knickerbocker
Avenue a microcosm of the rest of the city. She and her colleagues have
interviewed 300 workers and employers throughout the five boroughs, and have
identified 14 industries where wage violations have become standard, including

The problem has grown
prevalent in poor neighborhoods like Bushwick. Predominantly immigrant
employees grapple with language barriers and, in some instances, shaky legal
status. Predominantly immigrant employers don’t keep up on the laws, either,
which have changed twice in two years. Meanwhile, the government has stopped
aggressive enforcement. "If you’re a low-road employer, you have a lot of
incentive to break the law," Bernhardt says.

Food retailers have
become prime suspects. The AG’s labor bureau has prosecuted hundreds of
greengrocers for violations since 1999, says Smith. Three years ago, it
negotiated the landmark $3.2 million settlement against Gristede’s Food, in
Manhattan. That’s how much the supermarket chain owed 60 delivery workers who
had toiled 60 hours a week for $95 plus tips.

Just last May, nine
former employees sued another Bushwick supermarket, Food Bazaar, accusing the
store of forcing them to work 50 to 60 hours per week, paid only in tips. The
lawsuit, now pending in federal district court, seeks more than $1.5 million in
back wages and overtime pay.

Over at Associated,
conditions seem mixed. Employees who spoke with the Voice represented
virtually every department, from meat to produce to the main floor. They handle
food, load cargo, stock shelves, deliver groceries. Shifts last 10 hours, and
run six days straight, they say. Yet the workers say only two employees get a
proper wage—$500 a week, or $7.14 an hour. The rest report averaging $300 a
week—the going rate at grocery stores, restaurants, and garment factories these
days, according to Bernhardt. Packers, including the Nuñezes, report receiving
only tips.

"It’s not
enough," says one worker about his wage, "not with the hard work that
we do."

As far back as
December 2004, Make the Road activists began approaching the workers,
explaining the push to wipe out allegedly abusive conditions. It took months to
convince enough of them to participate in the AG complaint. Eventually, that
same worker relays, "we said, ‘Let’s do it.’ It was time to stand

These days, activists
are literally standing up outside the Associated store. Evenings at five, the
picket line forms in front of the tired supermarket, its windows papered with
promotional banners—Hunt’s tomato paste, two for $3; Super "A"
mayonnaise for $1. At times, the protests have drawn 50 people. On this
Thursday, there are three lone picketers. They pass out pink flyers that
announce "Boycott Continues," as shoppers slip in and out of the
store. Some shoppers murmur an apology; others turn away to buy groceries
elsewhere. And some—not a chance. Says one thirtysomething man with a shrug,
"I’ve got to buy food."

Activists wrote to
Bienvenidos Nuñez on June 16, announcing the boycott over wages and requesting
a meeting. Make the Road organizers met with his attorney, Rosenthal, to no
avail. Last month, the company filed a petition with the National Labor
Relations Board, alleging that the boycott amounts to a demand for union
recognition. Rosenthal argues that Make the Road is a front for the Retail,
Wholesale, and Department Store Union, a Despierta Bushwick collaborator.

"This is all
about a union seeking to organize," he tells the Voice.

Manhattan attorney
Andrew Erlich, who represents Make the Road, counters that "this is an
obvious attempt to stifle the community’s voice." After all, he notes, any
picketing would have to stop if there were a union election. "The owners
are essentially saying that Make the Road is a union, and that’s not

Evidently, the NLRB
agreed; on July 18, it threw out the petition without a hearing. In the
five-page decision, the board found "no evidence that Make the Road, the
Union, or any labor organization commenced organizing the employees."

Back at Associated,
employees have seen some changes—good and bad. The workers interviewed for this
story say they’ve received a $25 hike in their weekly wages since June. At the
same time, they claim, they’ve had to sign letters stating that they make the
minimum wage and that they won’t join a union.

For the Nuñezes,
things seem worse. Sitting in Make the Road’s Grove Street office, surrounded
by stacks of "Boycott Associated" mailers, the couple recall how they
lost their jobs within weeks of the action. After activists singled out the
paltry pay of packers—there are four in all—the Nuñezes say their superiors
called them into the office, and asked if they’d participated in the labor

"I said, ‘I’m
going to be honest. We did,’ " Ramon recalls. Supervisors pressured the
couple to sign documents, written in English, they say. Then, they handed the
couple time cards to use daily. The Nuñezes refused. "I said, ‘I’m not
going to punch in and out, because you’re not paying me,’ " Ramon

Adds Tomacina,
"I don’t want to have anything to do with lying. God does not like

The couple claim they
got permission to take off work for a family emergency. But when they returned,
they were told to leave. Since July 13, Ramon says he has tried to call the
store four times to ask about his and his wife’s jobs, to no avail. They cannot
help but think the firing was retaliation for talking to the AG.

Rosenthal denies the
charge. "We have not terminated any workers as a retaliatory act. That
information is just false."

Smith, of the labor
bureau, says investigators are aware of the accusation. "It would come
into play in any complaint," she adds. If the AG’s office finds wage
violations, the labor bureau will try to force a settlement on behalf of
employees. Attests Smith, "We do settle most cases because the employer
violated the law, and he’s got nothing to say in court."

For now, workers say they
want what they deserve—back wages and decent pay. "Whatever happens will
happen," offers Tomacina. "But I think the workers will win."